It's been two years since two explosions at the TPC Group plant in Port Neches rocked the city, damaging homes and businesses.
More than 5,000 people have sued TPC, and they may have to wait two or three years for their cases to make it to court. 12News is digging into the reasons this litigation is taking so long and what led up to the explosions that rocked Port Neches.
A preliminary report from the feds offers crucial clues and paints a picture of a plant that knew it had problems.
Families and businesses in Port Neches have done the best they can to move on. Some say they're still scarred by the blast.
One mother said she was knocked out of her bed when the explosion happened just before she heard her daughter screaming at the top of her lungs. A business owner told 12News he was in a hurry to clean up his coffee shop when a second explosion rocked the city, causing him to close the store for days.
The blasts: "That whole window blew in."
People in Port Neches had learned to live comfortably with their neighbor, the TPC Group facility on Magnolia and Spur 136. Homes, baseball fields, and schools surround portions of the plant's perimeter. Allison Hudspeth said it never really bothered her that the plant was so close.
"All I saw was my neighborhood – my neighbors – my friends. So it didn't really bother me," Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth and her friends in Hebert Woods, off Merriman, can see the towers of TPC from their front doors.
"I certainly wasn't scared, or nervous, or worried about anything happening," Hudspeth said.
Two years ago, TPC's neighbors were rocked by an explosion in the night. It's something Hudspeth can't easily forget.
"Some noise, some something, sets it off and I think about it," Hudspeth said.
Instantly, her mind bounces back to the pure panic on November 27, Thanksgiving eve, in 2019. She said she didn't know it was the plant when the initial explosion happened.
"I'm yelling 'call 911, call 911,' because I didn't know what had happened," Hudspeth said.
She said she was knocked out of bed. "[I saw] bright red, bright yellow colors, and I'm just running around not knowing what's going on," Hudspeth said.
Her daughter was nearly hit by a wall of falling glass.
"She had just come from the kitchen to go get her phone, and right as she passed, that whole window blew in. She was standing, and just missed it, she had made it to that little doorway right there," Hudspeth said.
Her son was asleep in the back of the house.
"His door was jammed shut. He was walking through glass when I got him," Hudspeth said.
She said the look on her son's face was like nothing she had ever seen before.
"The look on his face was like the devil just put his hand on his shoulder and said, 'You're coming with me forever.' I mean, he just had this horrified look on his face," Hudspeth said.
Blocks away, in downtown, the blast blew open The Avenue Coffee and Café. Randy Edwards and his team rushed to clean up the store before the business day.
"We have a really good community around here," Edwards said. "And we started getting messages on Facebook and Instagram. 'Hey, your windows blew out. Your doors are wide open.'"
He said they intended to go ahead and open the store that day.
"That was the plan. Once we cleaned up, we had the windows boarded. We had staff planning to come in. People were en route when the second explosion happened," Edwards said.
It forced the store to close its doors for three days. The fire at the facility burned for weeks after the explosions, decimating most of the plant.
Litigation on pause: "It's not an accident in my opinion."
Coon said he has walked through what's left of the plant.
"It looks like World War II. It's devastating. It looks like it was all fire bombed," Coon said. "It was fire bombed."
He said the employees at the facility had a 'false sense of security' before it all happened. He said they felt 'relatively safe.'
"And they should be, and Jordan, they could be," Coon said. "They're supposed to be."
Video footage from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and the Museum of the Gulf Coast shows the plant being built.
It featured 200-ton towers of steel, 17 stories tall, which were built on site and hoisted into place to form the foundation of Neches Butane. These were some of the very parts of the plant that blew up decades later.
"Just because it's a refinery, it's not supposed to blow up. Just because it's a chemical plant, it's not supposed to blow up. It's not supposed to put anyone at risk," Coon said.
He believes it was no accident.
"This was very avoidable. It was known to be avoidable, so it's not an accident in my opinion," Coon said.
He points to the preliminary report from the US Chemical Safety Board, which focuses on TPC's issues with something called 'popcorn polymer.' The report especially mentions the issues in the south unit where the explosion happened.
"The product in the lines gets gummed up and when it gets gummed up, it expands. When it expands in the piping, it can cause the pipe to rupture. It's not a lot different than when water gets frozen in a pipe," Coon said.
In this case, 6,000 gallons of flammable liquid, mostly butadiene, escaped in less than a minute, forming a flammable vapor cloud. The first explosion happened a minute later.
"The problem is that when this piping splits, water's not coming out. Highly combustible hydrocarbons and chemicals are, and they tend to blow up," Coon said. "Catch fire and blow up and that's what happened here."
Attorney Mark Sparks at the Ferguson Law Firm is also working on the case. The firm has filed more than 1,000 lawsuits.
"They've known it forever. It's simple chemical knowledge," Sparks said.
Sparks says it was not a freak accident.
"That's why [TPC] had PowerPoint presentations two weeks before the explosion from their expert," Sparks said.
He says the plant was "absolutely not" operating safely at the time of the explosion. Sparks says sealed documents obtained during the discovery phase of the litigation spell out the trouble.
"They continued putting off the turnaround. It was so simple, Jordan. Shut it down. Listen to the employees. Listen to our clients who worked out there, that were begging them – shut this down. I'm not going to continue to work here if you continue to operate this in this condition," Sparks said.
He points to the plant's own air quality measurements taken along the fence line. That monitoring was required as a part of a previous EPA settlement. Data posted on the company website shows butadiene releases increased in frequency and severity in the months before the blast.
"Why did this particular corporation run this particular facility – this butadiene facility – into the ground – so bad that it exploded twice?" Sparks said.
Attorneys say it's further proof of the popcorn polymer problem.
Attorney Jane Leger is another lawyer working on this case.
"A small amount of rust can infect your entire process. They literally refer to these popcorn problems as infections," Leger said.
She said she was the first lawyer from the plaintiffs' side to get in the plant after the explosions. Leger said it was like something from a "movie about the end of the world warfare."
"I think a lot of people who are not from our area don't understand that plant was a next door neighbor to our community," Leger said.
Lawyers claim TPC was being run primarily by investors.
"Private equity firms out of New York who specialize in coming in and making chemical plants more profitable," Leger said.
Attorney Brent Coon said these firms work to "maximize" short-term profitability.
When asked who really owns TPC, Coon said, "There's a layer of shell companies we're trying to ascertain now. The proverbial Abbott and Costello who is on first?"
Attorneys have sued ten companies as part of the explosion lawsuits.
"We need to know who those people, what those shells involved, what their roles are in the management and decision making of the company itself," Coon said.
12News reached out to TPC and its attorney. Kevin Jacobs simply responded, "I do not comment on my clients' pending litigation."
As for what's happening at the plant now, company spokesperson Sara Cronin said in part, "TPC Group has been successful in operating safely and in an environmentally sound manner, while restoring crude C4 processing capability."
She said the facility serves as a terminal for moving raffinate and butadiene. TPC also says it 'resolved' more than 5,700 property claims since the explosion.
"They're pushing back, and we're gonna keep pushing because that's what we do, and we're gonna keep pushing until we bring finality and conclusion to these cases," Sparks said.
"This is a perfect example of someone who didn’t comply with the rules and kept violating and violating because the citations they were issued and the fines that were imposed don’t change their conduct," Sparks said. He suggested courts can exert pressure on these companies, "...but until these laws are changed, so that it hurts a company to explode, or it hurts for a chemical to release toxic chemicals into the environment that hurt children and families, until we do that as a state, this is going to continue to happen."
Coon said ownership concerns only exacerbate the situation. "Basically you have these companies, in this case investment bankers, hedge funds from Wall Street that come in and buy some of these small operations that are turning out a very high profit margin," Coon suggested. "The problem with these plants is that when their brakes get worn out, they don't want to take them in get brakes replaced – they'll just wait – and that's the mentality of the whole industry now."
Picking up the pieces: "We still think about moving"
For people like Allison Hudspeth, who sued, the wait continues. It may take two or three years for the cases to go to trial.
Hudspeth said she has put her life back together with just her insurance company's help.
"So the roof, the bricks, cracked. All of the windows, because the gaskets broke. We had to have new floors because there was glass implanted in the carpet and there wasn't any getting that out," Hudspeth said. "Sheetrock, crown molding, our pool was damaged."
She wants money from the lawsuit to repay her insurance company. When asked if she considered moving, Hudspeth said she still thinks about it even now. At the time, she says she thought about it "every other day."
"We still think about moving, but right now, we're in the best case scenario with what we have," Hudspeth said.
A community stronger than before: "I'm not going anywhere."
Downtown at The Avenue Coffee and Cafe, the focus is once again on coffee. Randy Edwards said the explosions aren't top of mind two years later.
"I don't think a lot of people talk about it, and honestly until you reached out, it was kind of in the back of my head somewhere that it even happened – because we've gone through so many things since then," Edwards said.
He believes Port Neches is stronger than ever.
"It's a very resilient group. The culture here is unlike any other. And I think we're lucky to be where we're at. We are a destination for Southeast Texas," Edwards said.
Even though the town was transformed by tragedy, it has been somehow strengthened in the process.
"You just move on I guess. We're here. I'm not going anywhere. Southeast Texas is my home and I'm glad that we have been able to bounce back," Edwards said.
All of the attorneys are working together at this point, gathering facts. The more than 5,000 lawsuits are caught up in the Texas court system under what's known as Multi District Litigation or MDL. "The procedure rules say, there have been so many lawsuits, let’s not re-invent the wheel a thousand times. Let’s have one judge do all of the early-on pre-trial stuff," Sparks explained. A single judge oversees all of it.
Attorneys say depositions and legal discovery continue right now.
Once the preliminary work is done, the cases can be sent back to individual courts and tried separately.