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Still No ‘All Clear’ After Chemical Blasts, But Town Moves on

Rachel Adams-Heard

(Bloomberg) -- Nearly a week since an early-morning chemical blast injured three and rained debris on Port Neches, Texas, residents of the town said they were ready to get back to business.

The subsequent fire at the crude-byproducts-processing facility, owned by TPC Group, was extinguished late Tuesday after forcing residents out of their homes over the Thanksgiving holiday. A mandatory evacuation order, made by a county judge after a second explosion at the plant, was lifted Friday morning, but officials have yet to issue an “all clear” for the project site. TPC said it will hold a call with investors Thursday to discuss the incident.

It was the latest disaster to hit southeast Texas towns with major chemical and petroleum plants.

“A lot of people have lived here their whole lives and are used to it,” said Mark Martinez, owner of The Tamale King, which was forced to close on the usually bustling Thanksgiving eve.

But this one was different, residents said. It was the middle of the night on Nov. 27 when residents jolted awake after the initial blast blew open doors, shattered windows and sent picture frames and knick-knacks crashing to the floor. Asbestos and other debris fell on backyards and rooftops, and residents were warned not to touch it.

“I never thought it would be this extreme,” said JillSuzanne Murphy-Wills, who was born and raised in Port Neches and owns a home-furnishings store in town. “Our friends’ homes are destroyed.”

Terri Melancon, who works as a sales clerk at Murphy-Wills’ store, said her garage door was busted open even though she lives about four miles away.

City and company officials warned from the start that they had no choice but to let the fire burn itself out and they had no idea how long it would take.

More than 12 hours after the explosion, as people were still trying to assess the damage, a second blast echoed through town. A county judge issued a mandatory evacuation for everyone within a four-mile radius of the chemical complex.

“I have a father who’s in hospice, and he was in the blast zone,” said Martinez, who worked for more than 40 years at a refinery in nearby Port Arthur. “My kids wanted me to leave, but I wouldn’t leave my dad.”

Port Neches is a city of about 13,000 on the Neches River halfway between Beaumont and Port Arthur. It’s long been associated with oil refining and petrochemicals.

In 2012, private-equity firms First Reserve Corp. and SK Capital Partners took TPC private in a $706 million deal. That staved off a rival bid from fuel-additives maker Innospec Inc. that was backed by Blackstone Group Inc. TPC, formerly known as Texas Petrochemicals Inc., competes with LyondellBasell Industries NV on some chemical processes and is run by former Lyondell senior executive Ed Dineen.

Three other major fires and explosions at chemical and petroleum facilities have rocked the southeast corner of the state this year. They reveal the catch-22 that comes with opening doors to companies that process highly flammable and toxic chemicals.

Residents of Port Neches and surrounding towns described being terrified as the fire at TPC raged on. But they also credited the industry with providing jobs.

Boot-clad plant workers account for about three-quarters of the business at The Tamale King, according to Martinez, who serves hot dogs and chipped-beef sandwiches in addition to tamales.

“It’s our bread and butter,” said Murphy-Wills. Her husband worked at a chemical facility owned at the time by Huntsman Corp. and two sons work at a plant owned by Motiva Enterprises. “All of our parents retired from those plants. Either you went to college or you went to trade school and came back to work at the plants.”

The TPC plant was built in the 1940s. The world’s biggest oil and chemical companies have unveiled at least $40 billion in new petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Murphy-Wills said she’s optimistic those newer plants will avoid the pitfalls of TPC, which has a history of environmental violations recorded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, several of which were classified as “high-priority.”

Local officials have also steered clear of criticizing TPC and the larger industry.

“Our hearts go out to them as well,” Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson said of TPC at a press conference Wednesday. “We appreciate TPC,” he said twice.

His comments echoed those made by Jerry Mouton, mayor of Houston suburb Deer Park, who praised the work of Intercontinental Terminals Co. after a March fire at one of its facilities created a cloud of cancer-causing benzene and spilled oil byproducts into the Houston Ship Channel. The chief executive officer of the company didn’t make a public appearance before releasing a YouTube video 11 days after the incident.

Jack Lynch, a retired schoolteacher in Port Neches, was putting up his Christmas lights Tuesday as firefighters continued to work just blocks from his house.

“I’m going on with my life,” he said.

Lynch, who turned 72 Wednesday, has an insurance adjuster coming out Thursday. As long as the company’s insurance pays to fix any damage that Lynch isn’t able to repair himself, he said he’ll move on without a grudge.

“I don’t want anyone out of work,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Adams-Heard in Houston at radamsheard@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Casey at scasey4@bloomberg.net, Bob Ivry, Joe Carroll

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