Update: Officials Warn of Asbestos Debris as Residents Return to Port Neches-Area Homes, Fire Contained But Could Burn for Days

December 1, 2019

A large fire is contained at a chemical manufacturing plant in Port Neches and evacuated residents have returned home, but the company that operates the site is warning of asbestos debris that might be found near the plant after an explosion last week.

It might be several days before the combined fires at the TPC plant a little north of Port Arthur are extinguished, and another flaring tower could fall before the fire and heat die down, Jefferson County officials said Saturday.

TPC (formerly Texas Olefins, later Texas Petrochemical) bought the chemical production site from The Woodlands-based Huntsman Corp. in 2006

The Port Neches plant — the company owns another in the Houston area — was opened in 1944, with asbestos used as a component of fire-retardant construction materials, as was common in the days before asbestos was banned.

A company spokesman warned on Friday that there could be burned debris from the explosion in areas near to the plant that might contain asbestos, identifiable as a white, chalky substance, with residents who find such debris urged to call TPC for removal.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick also warned that asbestos in one of the vessels that exploded could end up a distance from the site of the blast.

Smoke continues to rise above the plant with flames visible at night.

On Friday, the mandatory evacuation and curfew order in effect for the Port Neches area was lifted by a Jefferson County official.

Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated on Wednesday (primarily within a four-mile radius of the plant) following an overnight explosion and another in the early afternoon as a precaution since a possibility remained for a third explosion, but the all-clear was given on Friday.

Those residents did, however, have to spend Thanksgiving away from their homes, which many described to local and Houston news media as “heartbreaking.”

Some residents returned home to find significant damage, with a few gathering belongings and heading to hotels or the homes of relatives.

TPC mostly makes chemicals like butadiene and methyl tera-butyl ether, called MTBE, which are then used to make end products, including rubbers, fuels, plastics, lubricants and surfactants.

The Port Neches facility primarily manufactures butadiene and MBTE, the gasoline blending additive.

The Houston Chronicle also noted the company’s “spotty” environmental record and added that the Port Neches facility is “currently not compliant with the Federal Clean Air Act,” and hasn’t been for 12 of the last 12 quarters.