Officials say they have no estimate for how much time is needed to bring under control a Texas chemical plant fire ignited by a series of explosions.
At a Wednesday night news conference, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said officials had been unable to determine what caused the two explosions earlier in the day at the TCP Group plant because of a loss of electric power in the Port Neches plant.
The initial, early morning explosion caused three non-life-threatening injuries but caused extensive damage to the neighborhoods surrounding the plant, about 80 miles east of Houston. But Branick said the second explosion Wednesday afternoon that sent a large reactor tower rocketing high into the sky made clear that surrounding tanks of explosive materials were still in jeopardy.
He said that prompted the mandatory evacuation of a 4-mile radius from the plant. Water cannons are training water on the tanks in an effort to keep them cool and avoid further explosions.
Branick said round-the-clock air monitoring has yet to show a threat to the public from the smoke plume from fire.
Firefighters were working to contain the blaze after the initial explosion early Wednesday. The blast blew out the windows and doors of nearby homes and sent a plume of smoke stretching for miles.
The three workers who were injured – two TPC employees and a contractor – were treated and released from hospitals in Port Arthur and Houston, said Troy Monk, TPC’s director of health, safety and security.
About 30 employees were working at the plant at the time of the explosion and all have been accounted for, TPC said.
The plant makes chemical and petroleum-based products.
Monk said the blast occurred in an area of the plant that makes butadiene, a chemical used in the manufacture of synthetic rubber and other products. He said the plant has 175 full-time employees and 50 contract workers.
Monk said TPC does not know what caused the explosion, but it will form an investigation team to determine what happened.
“We’re staying focused on the safety of our emergency response personnel folks in and around in the community as well as trying to protect the environment,” Monk said at a news conference.
TPC officials know that at least three tanks have been damaged by the blaze, but firefighters have not been able to fully assess damage at the plant as they remain in a defensive position, Monk said.
Branick said he had been awakened by the blast, which blew in his front and back doors, “damaging them pretty significantly.”
Jefferson County Emergency Management coordinator Mike White told the Beaumont Enterprise five residents were being treated for minor injuries, mostly related to shattered glass.
White said state environmental officials are monitoring air quality but that no elevated chemical levels had been detected.
Officials in cities near the plant explosion asked residents to minimize their exposure to the chemical plume by sheltering in place, closing windows and turning off their heating and air conditioning systems.
Branick told Beaumont TV station KDFM that it’s a miracle no one died. Branick said one worker suffered burns and was taken by medical helicopter to a Houston hospital. The others had a broken wrist and a broken leg.
In the March fire, prosecutors filed five water pollution charges against the company that owns the petrochemical storage facility after chemicals flowed into a nearby waterway.
A search of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records by NPR found that TPC Group has been ordered to pay more than $378,000 in fines this year over environmental violations at two facilities, in Port Neches and in Houston.
The Trump administration last week eased Obama-era safety rules regulating how companies store dangerous chemicals. The regulations had been aimed at preventing disasters like the 2013 explosion that killed 15 people at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
"Under the Obama-era rules, businesses were required to notify nearby communities about certain chemicals, follow best practices and get a third-party audit if an accident happens," KUT's Mose Buchele reported for NPR. "But the Trump administration says those rules are burdensome and raise security concerns."
This post has been updated.