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Lawsuit alleges history of TPC Group operator error, equipment malfunctions, air quality violations

The lawsuit filed against the TPC Group also states more than 2,000 fish and 50 crabs died in the aftermath of the November explosions.

PORT NECHES, Texas — New court documents alleging operator error and equipment malfunctions at the TPC Group plant in Port Neches have been released in a lawsuit the Texas Attorney General filed against TPC Group after November's explosions. 

The lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality alleges the Port Neches plant had compliance issues for several years before the explosions. The documents filed Friday, February 21, 2020, cite "operator errors" and "equipment malfunctions" as reasons for emissions events prior to the explosions and the release of "unauthorized air contaminants."

Between 2014-2018, the TCEQ served seven "administrative orders" against TPC Group. An administrative order is issued when a company is out of compliance and requires the company to take action to correct the issue.

"TPC Group's poor operational, maintenance and design practices continue to cause emissions events," court documents stated. 

The lawsuit alleges that the plant experienced unauthorized air emissions events that "could have been prevented through better design and/or better operational and maintenance practices" on eight dates between Jan. 2018 and Sept. 2019. 

RELATED: Texas Attorney General files lawsuit in response to TPC explosion, fire in Port Neches

READ MORE | Here's the lawsuit filed against the TPC Group by the State of Texas

TPC Group's Port Neches Operations also failed to submit permit compliance certification and failed to identify the total estimate of emission events, the documents claim. 

Here is a list from the lawsuit of alleged TCEQ violations before the TPC explosions:

  • Jan. 22, 2018: 17-minute emission event, with 101.9 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, 136.4 pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 5.29 pounds of carbon monoxide and 12.89 pounds of nitrogen oxides due to over-pressurization. This violated TCEQ standards. 
  • April 13, 2018: 18-hour emission event, which released 6,493.46 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, 16,245.32 pounds of VOCs, 164.8 pounds of carbon monoxides and 35.54 pounds of nitrogen oxides, which also violated TCEQ standards. The documents state the plant experienced unauthorized air emissions events that "could have been prevented through better design and/or better operational and maintenance practices." TPC Group failed to accurately report the total amount of emissions, the documents state. 
  • April 15, 2018: Two-minute emission event, which released 54.45 pounds of VOCs after a pump restarted incorrectly. 
  • May 21, 2018: A 45-minute emission event, which released 113.52 pounds of 1,3-butadiene and 123.92 pounds of VOCs after proper procedures were not followed in the start up of a methyl aceteylene removal tower.
  • Sept. 11, 2018: A 15-minute emission event that released 64.26 pounds of 1,3-butadiene and 110.79 pounds of VOCs due to a valve failure on the pipe rack of a steam header. 
  • Aug. 29, 2018: Six-hour-and-50-minute emission event, which released 442.33 pounds of 1,3-butadiene and 547.43 pounds of VOCs from the cooling tower because of a leak in an exchanger.
  • May 10, 2019: 2-hour-and-40-minute emission event, which released 139 pounds of 1,3-butadiene and 348 pounds of VOCs after the pilot flame was put out in the rain and could not be reignited.
  • Sept. 27, 2019: 20-minute emission event that released 249 pounds of 1,3-butadiene after a threaded connection to a drain valve on a butadiene line broke due to fatigue. 

Here are some of the lawsuit's claims about the TPC explosion:  

Court documents confirm there were two initial explosions at 1 a.m. and 1:45 a.m. When the lawsuit was filed, emissions were still continuing, the lawsuit alleges. 

  • Nov. 27 to Dec. 16: A significant amount of volume of industrial waste was discharged into an unnamed ditch and flowed into the Star Lake Canal, then into the Neches River Tidal. The release resulted in degraded water quality, the lawsuit states. The wildlife impact was 2,196 dead fish and 51 dead crabs, TCEQ investigators reported. 
  • TPC can be fined for each day the fire and burning at the TPC Group plant continued, the lawsuit states. The explosion was Nov. 27, but the fires were not fully extinguished until Jan. 4. 

The lawsuit is asking for an independent third party, approved by TCEQ, to visit the plant within 30 days to look for the root cause of the explosion and the emissions events listed in the court documents. 

The lawsuit is asking the audit to be completed within 180 days and any action taken to address the audit findings must be completed by Dec. 1, 2021.

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