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Texas sues company whose Port Neches chemical plant exploded

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued TPC Group on Friday, citing a slew of environmental violations at its Port Neches facility, including ones connected to a Nov. 27 explosion.

Fire blackened towers and tanks days after an explosion at TCP Group in Port Neches on Dec. 17, 2019.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued TPC Group over environmental violations associated with the Nov. 27 explosion at the company’s Port Neches chemical plant, a blast that prompted widespread mandatory evacuations during the Thanksgiving holiday week.

The suit, filed Friday on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Travis County District Court, also alleges the Houston-based company violated clean air laws multiple times from January 2018 to September 2019. The suit seeks injunctive relief and civil penalties, as well as for TPC Group to cover its attorney fees, court costs and investigative costs.

“I appreciate the Attorney General’s action today,” TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said in a statement released Friday. “It is absolutely crucial that entities like TPC Group are held responsible not only for the destructive environmental pollution they cause, but also for their impact on human health.”

The suit, which also covers water violations, had been expected. TCEQ referred the case to the attorney general in late December after the agency's three appointed commissioners rejected staff-recommended penalties for TPC for eight pollution violations from 2018. They said the recommended penalties weren’t strong enough for incidents that investigators had found to be preventable. The decision was notable as the agency’s stated strategy has been to bring companies into compliance in house rather than slap them with large fines — a strategy environmental and watchdogs groups say does not work because there are so many repeat environmental offenders, including TPC Group. The agency also doesn’t refer that many cases to the attorney general’s office, which has the authority to pursue criminal investigations and higher penalties.

TPC Group spokeswoman Sara Cronin said in a statement that the company had seen that the attorney general had filed a petition.

“We remain focused on safely bringing this event to an end, minimizing impact to the environment while preserving the safety of the community,” she said. “We have been working in cooperation with the relevant agencies and will continue to do so.”

Response to the incident has been ongoing. The “unified command” that was formed to respond to the incident, consisting of local, state and federal environmental and emergency response agencies, disbanded Jan. 30. However, TPC Group has said it’s still working to move sensitive chemicals offsite, reestablish power, and evaluate tanks, piping and equipment in the impacted area of the plant.

The incident was the latest in a string of high-profile incidents at industrial facilities on the upper Texas Gulf Coast. And Paxton’s legal challenge is the latest in a string of lawsuits he has filed against the companies tied to them.

That approach, too, has been a departure from past procedure — a change that has brought both joy and suspicion to critics who applaud the swift legal action but also say it must result in appropriate penalties.

“While we’re encouraged by today’s announcement, filing suit is only the first step,” said Adrian Shelley, who leads the Texas office of Public Citizen, in a statement released Friday. “The attorney general must see this through with a penalty that is sufficient to deter polluters who threaten our health and safety. A stiff penalty would show that Texas will no longer tolerate threats to public health and safety from the petrochemical industry.

Some state lawmakers from the impacted areas, including Republican state Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont, have called for strong action, though the Legislature didn't pass many of the potential reforms it discussed in emergency hearings last year.

“I want to thank the TCEQ and the Attorney General for acting in the best interest of all Southeast Texans impacted by the Port Neches explosion,” Phelan said in a statement sent out by TCEQ. “Through this suit, the state can learn what caused the incident, how to prevent such occurrences in the future and adequately penalize all violations.”

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