60,000 People Evacuated from Exploding Plastic/Petrochem Plant

Via PPC member T.e.j.a.s.

Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) & Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA) Give Statement on TPC Chemical Disaster

On the morning of Nov. 27, 2019, an explosion involving a processing unit was reported at TPC Group Port Neches, Texas Operations site, east of Houston and less than 10-miles from Port Arthur Texas. No official statement has disclosed the full names of chemicals or toxicants being released into the air and surrounding community during the ongoing fire. The TPC Group Plant has a total of 175 full-time employees and 50 contractors, all personnel on-site have been evacuated and 3 personnel sustained injuries, 2 personnel of TPC Group and 1 contract worker. All 3 injured personnel were taken to the medical center in Southeast Texas, and one was later transported to Memorial Herman in Houston.

 “My father was a United Steelworker who succumbed to cancer in 2016. I am well aware that symptoms from this chemical disaster may not surface for years to come. Workers’ medical needs should be covered by TPC for years to come because of known bioaccumulation of both known and unknown chemicals exposures in the body. This facility is has a history of non-compliance, which means that workers bodies absorbed the costs in health impacts. Workers are the first line of defense when these chemical disasters happen. These expenses should be covered by TPC this is the cost of having unsafe business practices, otherwise, they will continue business-as-usual.” -Ana Parras, Co-Executive Director T.e.j.a.s and former President of AFSCME, Local 3242, Corpus Christi, Texas

Incident command was established offsite at the Huntsman Administration building due to the size of fire and inability to get into the location. No immediate shelter-in-place was ordered for the surrounding community until 9:00 am, as of 6:00 pm a total of 50,000 people are under mandatory evacuation. According to the EPA Region 6 and local officials, the main chemical of concern is 1,3-Butadiene although other chemicals may be involved. 1,3-butadiene is a gas used in the production of styrene-butadiene rubber, plastics, and thermoplastic resins. This chemical is carcinogenic, meaning it’s cancer-causing and has both short and long term effects including: irritation of the eyes, nasal passages, throat and lungs, neurological effects, blurred vision, fatigue, headache, and vertigo have also been reported at very high exposure levels. Skin exposure causes a sensation of cold, followed by a burning sensation which may lead to frostbite. Thousands of people were affected and thousands more continue to be in harm’s way.

“We will be spending thanksgiving under shelter-in-place and evacuation orders. We are now 35 hours after the initial blast that started at 1 am yesterday morning at the TPC plant, a known violator of the Clean Air Act, it will most likely burn throughout the night. We woke up to a fiery blast the day before Thanksgiving. This is life for our communities sitting at the fence-line of the petrochemical corridor along the gulf coast. Evacuation orders have only gone out to a 4- mile radius and more than 50,000 southeast Texans have evacuated. We live in an ever-growing petrochemical corridor because of the billions of dollars being invested in petrochemical infrastructure. Not even a full week after the Trump EPA Chemical Disaster Rule rollback. A rule that would have provided common-sense prevention rules in place during catastrophic events like this TPC Disasters.” -Hilton Kelly, CIDA Inc. Founder & Director.

Just six days prior, Trump’s EPA slashed common-sense protections under the Chemical Disaster Rule that could have mitigated the harm faced by communities impacted by disasters like this one. Protections including root-cause analysis, third party inspections and improved communications with first responders and local authorities. The impacted area included several vulnerable areas including residences and schools. The school district of Port Neches-Groves has a total of 11 schools with a total of 5,131 students, 39.1% are economically disadvantaged. All 11 schools sit inside the 4 mile radius of the chemical fire this includes: Taft Elementary, Groves Elementary, West Groves Education Center, Van Buren Elementary, Groves Middle School, Ridgewood Elementary, Port Neches Elementary, Port Neches Middle School, Port Neches- Groves High School, Woodcrest Elementary, and Alternative Education Center.

“People should be spending their holiday with families, instead they have been displaced due to no fault of their own. Fortunately, schools were not in session. What if the blast occurred during school hours? How many children and teachers would have suffered? Disasters like these are preventable, it shouldn’t take a chemical explosion for local, state, and agency officials to take action and realize the dangers of chemical facilities.” – Nalleli Hidalgo, Community Engagement and Education Liaison

 The TPC fire is not the first, nor last of explosive chemical disasters occurring in Texas. The frequency of chemical plant explosions are endangering workers’ lives on-site and raises concerns of public health issues for frontline communities. We are reminded of the recent fire at the ExxonMobil and the ITC facility on March 16, 2019 and March 17, 2019 in Baytown, Texas and Deer Park, Texas. All incidences found in the southeast Texas petrochemical corridor, east of Houston, Texas. We remain adamant that local, county and state officials implement a Regional Air Toxics Plan and support reinstating the Chemical Disaster Rule, which the current administration recently rolled back. We also want to urge the general public to seek legal remedies outside of the claims hotline and make a full assessment of damages including health impacts. We urge you not to come in direct contact with ash and other debris. Other considerations to keep in mind are the use of ponds, swimming pools and other open waters used for recreation, please avoid exposure to chemical ash and other debris that could have settled on these bodies of water. The same consideration should be given to ash and debris that has landed near residences, including but not limited to metal, charred material, and fire retardant foam that can potentially land on people’s residences, vehicles, and other property. If ash is located on your property avoid cutting lawns. The maintenance of lawns and other landscape can agitate any particulate matter. Instead, call local health and safety departments and take pictures and video of debris if permitted to return to your residences. If you are feeling any side effects visit your physician and maintain a record of your health. Document any symptoms including but not limited to the symptoms affiliated with 1,3-butadiene exposure. Local command stated that other chemicals may have been involved.

For these and additional concerns Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services urges residents in the area affected to evacuate and seek safety with friends and relatives further from the facility. Please remain calm and cautious of current and future road closures and weather events that may complicate the situation. Local officials have not called for a mandatory evacuation outside of the 4-mile radius but we urge those at further distances to take precautions a
nd make decisions best for themselves and family members. Tejas also urges the surrounding municipalities and communities including but not limited to Port Arthur, Port Acres, Pear Ridge, Griffing Park, Lakeview, Central Gardens, and Viterbo, and communities in-view of the plume to take precautions and limit outdoor exposure due to unknown substances that the plume may carry. Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services is not a government agency or county entity to mandate evacuation. We are a 501(c)3 registered environmental advocacy nonprofit that seeks to educate and inform communities on the environmental issues of concern. Due to the concentration of production, storage and other sensitive materials in and around the area we remind the public to stay abreast of the situation as they are out during the day before the Thanksgiving holiday. A Red Cross shelter is being set up at Ford Park in Beaumont according to Chester Jourdan, executive director of the American Red Cross of Southeast and Deep East Texas.

 As local, state, and agency officials release statements that their data, based on handheld air monitors is safe; community members continue to sit beneath a massive plume of toxic-chemical smoke. TPC is a petrochemical facility known to have a history of air permit violations according to the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO), an EPA database. ECHO data has documented TPC as a facility with over 12 quarters of violations dating back to 2017.

“Don’t tell me that health and safety is the topmost priority for TPC a known violator of the Clean Air Act. Children, elderly, pregnant women and so many others are being exposed to cancer-causing 1,3-butadiene. We have no information on the full slate of chemicals being released or the amounts. I appreciate local officials evacuating community members and taking intentional steps to protect public well-being it is a step up from the efforts during the ITC Disaster, and yet TPCs official updates lack the detail and information that ITC handed to the affected community. What we need is for the TCEQ to stop handing out air permits like candy and for the state to lift caps on financial penalties for facilities to fully enforce the letter of the law. How does a known-violator of the law keep getting permission to operate? This is not the first time TPC undermines community well-being. Their activity is criminal and TPC should not be allowed to continue to operate. I hope the general public understands this type of production is not one based on energy demand but the production of plastic goods. This is the real cost of plastic.” – Yvette Arellano, Policy Research and Grassroots Advocate, T.e.j.a.s

Both T.e.j.a.s and CIDA release this statement jointly believing that no community should have to face a chemical disaster as everyone, regardless of race or income, is entitled to live in a clean environment. 

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Agreement is the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals

VICTORIA, Texas (Oct. 15, 2019) – Petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics Corp. has agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit over federal Clean Water Act violations brought by Texas residents. The agreement is the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals. The company – whose Point Comfort, Texas plant has discharged billions of plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek – also agreed to comply with future “zero discharge” of all plastics and clean up existing pollution.

This record financial settlement will fund environmental mitigation in the region around the Point Comfort facility in Calhoun County. It is five times the previous largest settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals. (Public Interest Research Group of N.J. v. Witco Chemical Corp., Nos. 89-3146, C-359–83 (D.N.J. Jan. 15, 1993). The largest Clean Air Act suit brought by private individuals awarded $19.95 million. (Environment Texas & Sierra Club v. ExxonMobil, S.D. Tex. 2017)).

In no other case have private individuals collected as much evidence to prove illegal discharges. 

“The years of fighting to protect the natural resources of the Lavaca Bay-Cox Creek area have finally paid off,” said Diane Wilson, a former shrimper and a plaintiff in the suit, along with members of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “It’s a huge victory for the environment – and for the people who love and depend upon it. We look forward to working with Formosa to restore the health of our environment and make sure it stays pristine.” 

“A settlement of this size sends a powerful message to corporate polluters – there’s a steep price to pay for flagrant, chronic violations of laws that protect our environment,” said Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) attorney Erin Gaines, who represents Wilson. Gaines added, “And with plastics pollution of our oceans at a crisis, the message comes at a vital time.” 

The settlement, proposed by the plaintiffs and Formosa, must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, who already ruled for the plaintiffs after hearing the liability phase of the case.  

None of the $50 million settlement will be awarded to the plaintiffs.

The settlement funds will be paid out over five years into a fund that will support projects that reverse the damage of water pollution in Texas’s Calhoun County. Some of those projects include:

$20 million for creating a cooperative that will revitalize depleted marine ecosystems and develop sustainable fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting.$10 million for environmental development of Green Lake park, the 2ndlargest natural lake in Texas, into an environmentally sound public park. $2 million to control erosion and restore beaches at Magnolia Beach. $5 million for environmental research of San Antonio and Matagorda bay systems and river deltas that feed into them. $1 million to support the “Nurdle Patrols” at the University of Texas’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, and to give scholarships to allow persons throughout the Gulf coast to attend Nurdle Patrol conferences. The brainchild of the Reserve’s director Jace Tunnell, the Nurdle Patrols are volunteer groups that collect plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, in order to document and research plastic pollution of the Gulf and its shores. $750,000 to the YMCA for camps for children to study and learn how to be good stewards of the local marine environment.

“This case is a shining example of the crucial role that citizen enforcement suits play in seeing that our cornerstone environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, actually fulfill their purpose of protecting our environment and public health,” said Josh Kratka, senior attorney at the National Environmental Law Center. “When state agencies and the U.S. EPA fail to secure compliance, private citizens and environmental groups must have the ability to step in to ensure polluters are held accountable.”

The settlement details how and when Formosa will make improvements to its plant to eliminate the discharge of plastic pellets. Plaintiffs will be allowed to review decisions and make objections throughout the process – from the hiring of an engineer to design the improvements, to the monitoring of Formosa to achieve zero discharge. If Formosa is found to be in violation again, it will pay for every documented discharge back into the settlement fund. Payments will start at $10,000 per discharge this year and increase in annual increments to over $54,000 per discharge. 

“Through reporting requirements, an independent monitor, site visits, and other accountability requirements, we will have access to the process to determine whether Formosa is living up to its side of the bargain,” said Bob Lindsey, a plaintiff and member of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “We will have the power to make sure Formosa fulfills its promises.”

Amy Johnson, an attorney for TRLA who also represents Wilson, said, “Since at least 2000, Formosa’s Port Comfort facility has discharged plastic pellets and powder into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek. “Our engineers were key in documenting that plastic pollution would continue unabated unless dramatic changes were made to the plant. We will now work with Formosa to make sure those improvements are made, and the discharges are stopped.” (TRLA attorney Jennifer Richards also worked on the case.)

In July 2017, Wilson and the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper members – represented by private co-counsels David Bright of Corpus Christi and David Frederick of Austin – filed suitagainst Formosa Plastics Corp., Texas and Formosa Plastics Corp., USA. 

Collecting their own evidence, they patrolled Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek on an almost daily basis for nearly four years, picking up samples of Formosa’s discharges. In total, they collected 2,428 samples of pellets and plastic powders and stored them in zip-lock bags and bottles marked with dates, times, and locations. They also took thousands of photos and videos of plastic pellets in the water and along shores. Packing the samples into boxes, they took them to the courthouse in downtown Victoria, where they presented them as evidence during the liability phase of the trial earlier this year. 

In his ruling for the plaintiffs, Judge Hoyt wrote, “these witnesses provided detailed, credible testimony… .” He described Formosa as a “serial offender” and wrote that its violations of the Clean Water Act were “extensive, historical, and repetitive.”

For the trial, Jeremy Conkle, an assistant prof
essor of environmental chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, provided an estimate of the quantity of pellets that Formosa discharged. For the past few years, Formosa has been both discharging plastic pellets and trying to clean them up. As such, Conkle was able to estimate how many had been spilled by finding out from cleanup crews how many had been collected. From April 2017 through February 2019, the crews removed between 341,000 and 3.4 million pounds of plastic debris, which equals 7.6 billion to 75 billion individual pellets, according to Conkle’s calculations. (See Addendum

“It’s great news that Formosa Plastics is finally being held accountable for polluting Texas waterways with plastic pellets,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The zero plastic discharge requirement this settlement won should be the standard for all plastic plants across the country.”

Photo: Plaintiffs David Sumpter, Diane Wilson, Bob Lindsey, and Ronnie Hamrick.

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