A series of explosions at the TPC Group chemical plant in eastern Texas damaged hundreds of homes and buildings Wednesday and forced the evacuation of more than 50,000 people over the Thanksgiving holiday.
The first explosion occurred about 1 a.m. Wednesday, injuring five people, including three TPC workers. Another blast occurred about 2 p.m., prompting Jefferson County officials to order a mandatory evacuation. Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the highest-ranking official in the county, imposed a mandatory evacuation for Port Neches, Groves, Nederland, and parts of Port Arthur on fears that the fires could trigger further blasts.
“There’s extensive damage throughout the city,” the Port Neches Police Department said in a statement. “Please stay off the roads anywhere near the refineries. Obey all the barricades that are in place. We are doing everything we can to keep everyone safe and informed.”
The evacuation order was lifted on Friday after county officials were confident the fires had been contained and there were no further risks of explosion.
Public officials also expressed concern that hazardous chemicals from the plant could have become airborne. The TPC plant, formerly Texas Petrochemical, manufactures butadiene and other chemicals used in synthetic rubber, fuels, lubricants and plastics.
The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality and TPC said air tests conducted in the area showed levels of butadiene and other chemicals were beneath the threshold considered toxic for human health.
Judge Branick also warned that the TPC explosions “could have blown … asbestos debris over the neighborhoods and into some yards,” according to CNN.
Parts of the TPC plant were built in the 1940s and had pipes insulated with asbestos materials. County officials urge anyone who sees any chalky white material to avoid contact with it and report it to the company.
Asbestos is a group of natural minerals composed of thin, needle-like fibers that are extremely hazardous to human health. Although asbestos is banned in many countries, its use is permitted in certain manufacturing processes in the U.S. Exposure to asbestos can cause several types of cancer and disease, including mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Exposure to butadiene can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs at low levels. Higher levels of butadiene exposure can damage the central nervous system and cause blurred vision, dizziness, fatigue, fainting, lowered blood pressure and pulse rate, headaches and nausea. There is also scientific evidence linking butadiene exposure to cancer, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
According to the Houston Chronicle, TPC Group has had “a spotty environmental record in recent years.” The Houston-based company was fined $214,000 for excessive emissions and pollution and a failure to report the incidents. The Chronicle also reported that a storage tank at its Houston facility caught fire in April of last year.
Officials haven’t determined what caused Wednesday’s explosions. The incident remains under investigation.