Refinery Plant Explosion in Texas Raises Questions About Chemical Safety Rules

Nov 27, 2019
Originally published on November 27, 2019 7:28 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's go to Texas, where authorities are investigating a chemical plant explosion that could be felt for miles. Three people were injured, and the county ordered residents within a four-mile radius to evacuate. This is just the latest of several similar incidents in Texas. And as Florian Martin of Houston Public Media reports, it raises questions about the Trump administration's relaxation of chemical safety rules.

FLORIAN MARTIN, BYLINE: The explosion at the TPC Group plant in Port Neches, near Beaumont, happened around 1 o'clock in the morning. The blast was so strong windows and doors of buildings in the vicinity were blown out. Security cameras captured the explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MARTIN: The ensuing chemical fire sent a big, black plume into the air for hours. The community was rocked by a second explosion and fireball this afternoon. Here's the company's director of health, safety and security, Troy Monk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TROY MONK: You don't want to be downwind from this, so you need to take all necessary precautions to move cross or upwind from the event and find yourself not in that plume.

MARTIN: The scene is a familiar one in southeast Texas. This area is home to dozens of refinery and chemical plants along the Gulf Coast. In the past year, there have been three other big fires in the region, including one eight months ago that sent a plume of smoke over Houston for days. The hope then was that the attention would lead to better safety measures to avoid future incidents.

RAMANAN KRISHNAMOORTI: The problem with much of chemical safety investigation is it takes time.

MARTIN: Ramanan Krishnamoorti is the chief energy officer at the University of Houston. The real problem, he says, is there's a culture developing in the chemical industry that's led to the relaxation of safety norms.

CATHERINE FRASER: The Trump EPA recently just overturned parts of the Chemical Disaster Rule...

MARTIN: Catherine Fraser is with Environment Texas.

FRASER: ...Which kind of puts in place enforcement actions and requires emergency response plans that first responders, communities and workers kind of know what they're getting into when there's a disaster like this. And it helps minimize disasters and, hopefully, prevent them in the first place.

MARTIN: The Chemical Disaster Rule was put in place after a 2013 explosion of a fertilizer plant that killed 15 people in the Texas city of West. Krishnamoorti says the decision by the Trump administration to ease the Chemical Disaster Rule likely had no bearing on what happened today. But he says cutting back the federal funding of the Chemical Safety Board probably does.

KRISHNAMOORTI: I think it takes a very high-quality Chemical Safety Board to assess these challenges, to then come back and then establish best practices.

MARTIN: Chemical companies say the safety of their plans and workers is a top priority. But while it's unclear what caused today's explosion in Port Neches, Krishnamoorti worries these relaxed rules provide an incentive for companies to put profits ahead of safety.

For NPR News, I'm Florian Martin in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.