More than 50,000 people in southeast Texas will spend Thanksgiving away from their homes as evacuation orders remained in place after two powerful Wednesday blasts at a chemical plant in Port Neches, about 80 miles east of Houston.
A fire that sent large plumes of dark smoke into the sky continued to burn Thursday at the TPC Group plant, which manufactures butadiene and other chemicals used in synthetic rubber, fuels, lubricant additives and plastics.
Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens said there are no lingering issues with air quality after the explosions, but the risk of further blasts hurling debris and flames spreading necessitates maintaining the evacuation order and a 10 p.m. curfew.
“It’s Thanksgiving, a lot of people are displaced, they can’t go home,” Stephens told TV station KFDM.
There’s no word on when residents will be allowed back home, but officials plan to reassess the evacuation order Friday morning, and Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson said he’s “cautiously optimistic” they'll be able to return by the weekend.
Government and company officials released a joint statement Thursday saying air quality results from 20 monitoring stations around Port Neches “continue to show no actionable levels” above state and federal standards.
The first explosion around 1 a.m. Wednesday sent three workers to hospitals – they were treated and released that day – and blew out windows and doors in homes and businesses for miles. At least five residents were injured, mostly by shattered glass.
Some 13 hours later, a second blast prompted county officials to impose the evacuation order covering a 4-mile radius that includes Port Neches along with neighboring Groves, Nederland and a portion of Port Arthur.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the top county official, said Wednesday night that a loss of power at the plant prevented any investigation into the cause of the explosions or how much damage was done to the facility.
At a Thursday news conference, Branick said fires at the plant will be allowed to keep burning in an effort to depressurize its pumping and storage systems.
There's no estimate yet on the extent of damage to surrounding neighborhoods, but Branick has first-hand knowledge of the explosions’ impact. He lives near the plant and said he was awakened by the first blast, which blew in his front and back doors.
TPC Group, which according to a spokesman has 175 full-time employees and 50 contract workers, promised it would launch "a full and thorough investigation" into the cause of the explosions.
“We’re staying focused on the safety of our emergency response personnel folks in and around in the community as well as trying to protect the environment,” said Troy Monk, the company’s director of health, safety and security.
The Houston Chronicle said TPC Group, which until 2010 was known as Texas Petrochemical, “has a spotty environmental record in recent years.’’
The newspaper reported that earlier this year TPC Group was fined $214,000 for excessive emissions and pollution, including a failure to report incidents. The Chronicle also said a storage tank at the company’s Houston facility caught fire last year, although there were no injuries.
Texas has seen multiple petrochemical industry fires this year, including one that burned for days near Houston and another one that killed a worker at a plant in nearby Crosby.
Contributing: John Bacon, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas chemical plant explosions: 50,000 out of homes on Thanksgiving