Other Voices: Port Neches explosion shows need for firm guidelines

Beaumont Enterprise

Right now no one knows exactly why the TPC Group plant in Port Neches exploded early Wednesday morning. But even at this early stage, one thing seems as clear as the shards of broken glass that littered many a home in Mid County: This is why chemical plants should have strict operating rules … and why relaxing those rules could have devastating consequences.

We made this exact point in this space two days before the blast, noting the harm in plans by the Trump administration to relax rules put in place after the tragic explosion of a fertilizer plant in West in 2013. We said, “This is not the way to ensure that dangerous chemicals and products are handled safely. It leads to shortcuts and compromises that can result in major problems.”

Two days after those words appeared, Southeast Texans were reminded that this is more than a theoretical possibility.

The TPC plant is like many facilities in the area, and fortunately most of them are operated safely. It has been years since this region saw an accident like this one. But all it takes is one mistake or an equipment failure, and the next thing you know 50,000 people are being evacuated the day before a major holiday.

As bad as this incident was, it could have been far worse. Three workers inside the plant were hurt but the injuries reportedly are not that serious. No first responders were harmed in their heroic work to quell this blaze. All of us must be truly thankful for this good fortune.

Had that explosion happened during the day instead of at 1:15 a.m., the consequences could have been more deadly. Students at Port Neches-Groves High School could have been threatened, just like people in vehicles driving nearby or customers in neighboring businesses. In the blink of an eye, this could have transformed from a major inconvenience to an unthinkable tragedy. Even now we don’t know the full environmental implications of asbestos that might have been expelled or the clouds of toxic smoke billowing from the ruins for days, but there’s no way that’s good.

Southeast Texans are not naïve about these dangers.

Thousands of us have worked in these petrochemical plants for decades and made a good living from them. But anyone who has set foot inside a plant gate knows that an event like this is always just one act away — a valve that was turned or not, a meter that was checked or not.

It also seems these accidents are becoming more common. In 2013, an explosion at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, Louisiana, injured two workers. In 2014, four workers died at a chemical plant in La Porte after being exposed to methyl mercaptan. In 2015, an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, injured two workers.

Those are just some of the more high-profile examples. The only way to keep these dangers at bay is to maintain a constant focus on safety and make sure every plant has all the reasonable safeguards it needs — regardless of cost in a highly profitable industry.

The Trump administration must pay attention to this wakeup call from Port Neches. It must halt the rollback of these new regulations and give the benefit of the doubt to safety experts, not industry representatives. No one likes red tape or unwarranted government intrusion into our lives. But sometimes, these rules are put in place for a reason. Southeast Texans saw that once last week, and we don’t want a repeat.

Today's Bible verse

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

— John 1:1-3

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