Texas Chemical Firm Hauled to Court Over Refinery Blast

Ray Moore and Milton Perio observe the fire consuming the TPC Group plant on Nov. 27, 2019, in Port Neches, Texas. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (CN) – As TPC Group claim agents go door-to-door in neighborhoods surrounding its southeast Texas refinery, still smoldering from an explosion that engulfed it in flames last week, the fallout has landed the company in court. It is already facing six lawsuits.

With its staff working at an emergency operations center in a conference room at a Holiday Inn in Beaumont, TPC Group has won praise from local officials and the area’s U.S. Congressman Randy Weber for its response to the disaster at its refinery in Port Neches.

A cloud of smoke from the TPC Group plant explosion is visible from a little league baseball park on Nov. 27, 2019, in Port Neches, Texas. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via AP)

A butadiene processing unit exploded around 1 a.m. on Nov. 27 with such force it broke windows and damaged roofs and doors on neighboring homes and businesses. Three workers suffered minor injuries.

A mandatory evacuation order for around 50,000 people who live within 4 miles of the plant was extended after a less-powerful explosion that afternoon took out a tower at the refinery.

The calamity cast a pall over Thanksgiving as evacuees had to celebrate away from their homes. On Saturday, black smoke was still billowing from nine chemical-fueled fires at the refinery. As of Monday afternoon firefighters had extinguished all but three of the blazes, the Beaumont Enterprise reported.

Residents’ outlook further darkened Friday when Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the county’s chief executive, announced the second explosion had damaged a vessel containing asbestos, and the blast could have sent the cancer-causing substance into surrounding neighborhoods and as far away as Port Arthur, 10 miles south of the refinery.

TPC Group said Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and local agencies are tracking air pollutants.

“Monitoring results continue to indicate no human health concerns in the community,” the company said in a statement.

TPC Group said its insurance claim agents started visiting homes in neighborhoods near the refinery on Sunday and starting Tuesday and continuing for several days, around 100 of them will be going door-to-door from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The company said claims are divided into two categories: evacuation-related and property damage.

Attorneys, meanwhile, are meeting with residents, some of whom report they are suffering from headaches, ear pain and sore throats from the explosions and fires, and cautioning them not to sign any waivers until they consult with an attorney.

Some property owners and residents have already opted to forego the claims process and take their chances in court.

Brian Lange claims in a class action in Harris County District Court that TPC Group exposed people to toxic levels of butadiene, which is used to make synthetic rubber.

“Exposure to butadiene is known to cause irritation to the eyes, throat, nose and lungs. Prolonged exposure to butadiene is known to cause blurred vision, vertigo, headaches, nausea and fainting,” according to the class action, which Lange filed Monday on behalf of anyone working or living in Port Neches from Nov. 27 to Nov. 29. He is represented by William Ogden of the Houston firm Farrar & Ball.

That class action and another filed Monday in Beaumont federal court say TPC Group, owned by New York private equity firms SK Capital Partners and First Reserve, have been fined by the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for excessive air pollutant emissions more than six times in the past five years.

Under a settlement it reached with the EPA in 2017, TPC Group agreed to pay a $72,000 civil penalty and to spend at least $275,000 installing a butadiene monitoring system on the fence around its Port Neches refinery, according to the federal class action. Beaumont attorney Richard Coffman is leading the federal suit.

In addition to those two cases, four others have been filed in state court.

The Houston-based company also operates a refinery in that city. It did not respond Monday night to an email seeking comment on the lawsuits and the status of the fires.

Weber – the Republican congressman whose southeast Texas district stretches from the Louisiana border to counties on the Gulf Coast southwest of Houston and is home to dozens of refineries and chemical plants – visited the emergency operations center at the Holiday Inn on Monday and came away impressed.

“TCEQ is there, EPA is there, the [Texas General Land Office] and Judge Branick’s folks are working together, and everyone is pulling the same weight,” Weber told the Beaumont Enterprise, adding that TPC is “really on the ball.”

The refinery fires caused the Port Neches-Groves Independent School District to cancel classes Monday.

District schools reopened Tuesday after engineers inspected buildings for structural damage, air-safety technicians ran tests and staff cleaned buses, classrooms and playground equipment.

Superintendent Mike Gonzales did not immediately respond Tuesday to a message asking if students will be kept indoors due to the fires.

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