TPC Group's Port Neches plant leaked chemicals, then exploded. Now they want Houston to trust them.
Outside Cesar Chavez High School, students ran laps on the soccer field, where the flare stacks of TPC Group’s Houston Plant loom above the treetops. Inside, TPC’s vice president of public relations kicked off a bizarrely secretive, invite-only meeting with a big smile. “Of course we’re here to talk about safety and the environment,” Sara Cronin said, “but our responsibility goes beyond that, to being a good neighbor.”
These “good neighbors” gained national infamy in 2019, when their chemical plant in Port Neches exploded. A few months later, they applied for permits to expand 1,3-butadiene production at their Houston Plant, in the heart of the East End. Many residents, including myself, opposed the permits, because the 80-year-old facility has an infamous history of its own. In fact, the year the Port Neches plant exploded, the Houston Plant actually illegally released more butadiene, despite the fact that it had no similar industrial disaster.
As for TPC’s neighbors in Port Neches, more than 5,000 claimants have yet to receive a dime from the company for damages incurred in 2019. Those lawsuits might take years to resolve, and the process was further delayed when TPC declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June.
Butadiene is a volatile organic compound known to cause cancer, birth defects and contribute to ozone pollution. It’s also particularly difficult to handle, stressed Neil Carman, the clean air director with Sierra Club. “It has these double bonds that make it so explosive,” he said. An event like the Port Neches failure in densely populated Houston would be catastrophic. “You’d see tremendous destruction. You would feel the shockwave maybe 10 miles away,” an area that would encompass downtown.
Houstonians have cause to worry about a repeat. During a recent investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency found similar problems inside the plant to those in Port Neches, including “visible external corrosion of equipment and failure to adequately track, manage and mitigate dead legs.” One dead leg (an infrequently used section of pipe) led to the Port Neches explosion. The Houston Plant has 63 dead legs.
Something rather than nothing
Despite exhaustive testimony from East End residents opposing the expansion, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved TPC’s permits last January. Leticia Gutierrez, who lives less than a mile from the plant and can see flaring events from her home, was granted what's known as a contested case hearing.
As a graduate of nearby Milby High School and community outreach director with Air Alliance Houston, Gutierrez was uniquely prepared to take on the corporation in court. She went door-to-door, encouraging her neighbors to join the case, but they expressed fears of intimidation. “No one was interested in volunteering the minute they knew there was going to be an actual courtroom hearing,” she said.
Eventually, with Gutierrez’s participation, Air Alliance Houston, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club accepted a settlement with TPC rather than taking them to court. Gabriel Clark-Leach, an attorney with EIP, explained their rationale for pursuing a settlement. “It’s very difficult for groups opposing these kinds of permits to prevail in this state, even if they’re right. The parties involved — they’re willing to accept something rather than nothing, which is what they often get if they insist on fighting out the issues with the TCEQ.”
‘So what’s different here?’
Our meeting with TPC at Chavez in September 2022 was part of the “something” won in the final settlement. Cronin started her presentation by lauding the corporation’s products and highlighting the charitable efforts of their board. She also discussed the terms of the settlement, including two infrastructure projects — additional fenceline monitors and reliability improvements to the vent gas recovery system.
Air Alliance had fought for this opportunity for the community to meet with executives face-to-face. Despite using the phrase “transparency” many times over the course of the evening, TPC had insisted the meeting be capped at 20, and they forbade Air Alliance and Sierra Club from advertising the event, taking any pictures or mentioning that it had taken place. Media was not permitted to attend, but I got an invite as a concerned resident.
With only 30 minutes remaining, the executives finally gave us an opportunity to ask questions. The ensuing back-and-forth revealed that the residents in attendance were unimpressed and didn’t trust TPC to protect our health, safety and environment.
Juan Parras asked about the vent gas recovery system improvements to Chris Cargill, TPC’s director of engineering. During flaring, excess butadiene is burned off, but the wind causes some of it to escape — a major source of air pollution. The vent gas recovery system is designed to prevent flares, recycling excess chemicals back into boilers that power the plant or crackers that make other products. TPC’s system is 20 years old, however, and when it doesn’t work, the plant has no choice but to flare. Parras’ questioning revealed that TPC will not be replacing the aging system, merely buying spare parts to make replacements when it inevitably breaks down.
I focused on fenceline monitoring. As a result of the settlement, TPC will add two gas chromatograph monitors to the two they have. Jason Sanders, their environmental manager, touted the benefits of doubling their capacity to monitor for butadiene leaks. But the Port Neches plant also had four gas chromatograph monitors, which the EPA required because of years of persistent violations. These monitors showed increasing levels of excess butadiene for several months before the explosions. “There was no accountability to act on the fenceline data in Port Neches,” I asked, “so what’s different here?”
TPC executives assured me they do not want their plant to explode. However, they refused to speak about Port Neches. “I can’t comment because my focus is on the Houston operation,” said John Harvey, their vice president of operations. “If something happens, we are committed to making sure nothing happens.”
I pressed further, asking if any of their internal operations had meaningfully changed since the explosion. “We can maybe get back to you,” Harvey said, “but I can’t comment on what happened over there.”
These maddening evasions recalled TCEQ’s first hearing about TPC’s expansion, which I attended back in November 2021. The agency’s representatives that night repeatedly cut off any concerned attendees who brought up the disaster in Port Neches, saying that the incident was irrelevant. These public servants, charged with protecting our air, land and water, insisted they were forbidden from considering a company’s history of industrial accidents when deciding whether to issue a permit.
The plant’s surroundings were also not taken into consideration — including the fact that there’s a Goodyear plant next door which also releases butadiene, adding to the toxic mix of chemicals in the air of the East End. I brought up the fact that children growing up within two miles of Houston’s Ship Channel are 56 percent more likely to develop a kind of leukemia than those living at least 10 miles away — and I was told this was not a “substantial issue.”
That hearing had been virtual and voice-only, but at the meeting at Cesar Chavez, TPC executives had to confront residents face-to-face. The most heated exchange occurred when Cronin assured us that TPC reports all leaks and flaring events online. Gutierrez interrupted, saying she has video evidence of flares that were never reported. Cronin insisted she must have witnessed a flare from some other company. “That’s insulting,” Gutierrez said. “I know where TPC is in relation to my house.”
As an East End resident and parent, I am grateful for the hard work Gutierrez, Air Alliance Houston, the Sierra Club and EIP put into the settlement. I’m glad that if and when TPC’s 20-year-old vent recovery system fails, spare parts will be on hand to fix it. I’m glad they will have two more fenceline monitors. And I’m glad eight executives were required to walk the halls of Chavez High School to face people justifiably frightened to live near their plant.
But my feelings were best summed up by Gutierrez. “The settlement? I understand we cannot ask for much. They are indeed the ones holding all the power, the cards and of course our health in their hands,” she said after the meeting. “Yet we have to settle for peanuts.”
Or maybe spare parts.
For Texans living next door to a bankrupt, dangerous chemical manufacturer with a long history of industrial failures, little help appears to be coming from a “reluctant” TCEQ.
At a hearing last June, more than a hundred Texans converged in Austin and pleaded with a bipartisan commission to strengthen the agency through the sunset review process. I was there and saw that we were routinely ignored. Republican Keith Bell, who describes himself as “a champion for local public schools,” stared at his phone as a child pleaded for help against the concrete batch plants making her cough and as Fifth Ward residents shed tears over family members lost to creosote poisoning. However, when the occasional industry representative took the stand, Bell and other Republican legislators initiated lines of questions that revealed their interest in reducing regulation.
While state lawmakers look the other way, leaders in the city’s health department and local nonprofits are standing up for residents. The City of Houston opposed the expansion. Houston Botanic Garden has voiced concerns. EPA staff are planning to scrutinize the plant closely and hold monthly meetings with TPC and other meetings with residents to keep us informed.
Ultimately, however, it’s TCEQ’s job to protect our air, land and water, and they have the most power to do so. Unfortunately, the agency has a recent history of penalizing illegal emissions like those that have happened at both of TPC’s plants only 3 percent of the time. Governor Greg Abbott appointed the three commissioners now in charge, and under their leadership, TCEQ seems unlikely to take on industry. Perhaps voters will take to the polls this week to enact change.
Until that happens, Neil Carman believes Houstonians are living on borrowed time. A former TCEQ inspector, Carman has toured many of the petrochemical plants along the Ship Channel and described how plant workers fight endlessly with rust, corrosion and failing equipment. Houston’s salty air is particularly corrosive to the miles and miles of pipework at these plants. Many of which — including TPC’s — date to World War II. “Would you drive a car from World War II?” Carman asked me.
I wouldn’t. And it keeps me up at night, knowing that these 80-year-old, rusty facilities are processing and producing highly reactive, cancer-causing chemicals in my neighborhood.
Carman offered what might be the East End’s best hope for cleaner air and safety in the near future. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the plant shut down in a couple years, because they can only throw so much money at this aging infrastructure.”
But, as he stressed, “Let’s just hope that happens before a catastrophic accident.”
Kern is a journalist and author of climate fiction who lives along Brays Bayou in Houston. You can find them on Twitter @sim_kern and on the web.
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