Energy & Environment

‘We’ve Had Enough’: Environmental Groups Raise Concerns About Chemical Plant’s Proposed Expansion In Houston’s East End

The company has a history of environmental violations, including a recent explosion at its Port Neches facility in 2019.

An aerial view of TPC petrochemical plant near downtown Houston.

Local environmental groups on Thursday raised opposition to the planned expansion of a chemical plant in Houston's East End owned by the company at the center of a Port Neches explosion.

The company, TPC Group, has applied for air quality permits to expand its production of butadiene, a known carcinogen. During a Thursday night meeting, which was held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, residents and environmental advocates expressed concern about the cumulative impact of additional emissions in an area that already has so much industry.

Susan Rogers, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said she opposes the expansion.

"The human cost of expansion is far too high," she said. "In our community, we are subject to far too many hazards and I think we've all had enough."

Many also brought up the company's history and questioned what it would do to ensure safety in the community.

A smoke plume rises off of the fire at the TPC Group Port Neches facility.

In November 2019, a massive explosion at the TPC Group Port Neches facility rocked the surrounding neighborhood, damaging homes and causing a mandatory evacuation.

Corey Williams with Air Alliance Houston said his sister lived in Port Neches at the time and woke up in the middle of the night when her windows blew in and the ceiling collapsed on top of her.

"She told me that she thought she was going to die that morning," he said. "Facilities have to understand that they really hold people's lives in their hands and the decisions that they make are consequential to people's lives."

After the explosion, it was discovered that the company had a history of state and federal environmental violations, according to reporting from the Texas Tribune.

But when pressed, officials from the TCEQ and TPC said the purpose of the meeting wasn't to discuss the Port Neches facility.

Jason Sanders, the environmental manager at TPC’s Houston facility, said the Houston facility has "robust emergency response plans."

"We have no plans to have an event similar or in any manner," he said. "What we do plan to do is increase the safety and reliability of the facility through these projects."

In addition to expanding the facility, the requested permits also include upgrades to existing infrastructure.

"We're committed to being a good neighbor, and we work daily to operate our plant safely, reliably and in an environmentally safe manner," said John Harvey, the TPC Houston plant manager. "Our modeling has shown that emissions from the Houston plant meet standards established to be protective of the community."

He also pointed to an agreement reached with the city of Houston in 2005 to reduce butadiene emissions at the facility, which included implementing fenceline monitoring and other measures.

While it hasn't had a major explosion, TPC's Houston plant has had its share of incidents over the years, including a fire in 2018.

More recently, a flaring incident last year sent a plume of black smoke into the air that worried residents.

"These events have been frequent and ongoing for years," said Ana Parras with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

She also raised concerns about its proximity to Cesar Chavez High School, which is located about a mile away.

"These children are in harm’s way every day they attend school," she said. “They must breathe in the toxic air already permitted from this facility.”

The TCEQ has conducted its technical review and prepared a draft permit, although no final decisions have been made.

"The facility is expected to be protective of human health, including those most vulnerable such as elderly, children, those with existing health concerns, and also the environment," said Cara Hill with the TCEQ.

The Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter has requested a contested case hearing, which would make the application the subject of a legal proceeding in front of an administrative law judge.

If granted, those hearings could take place later this year.

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