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‘Pennies on the dollar’ – Port Neches residents, local lawyers say TPC plea deal doesn’t add up

‘Pennies on the dollar’ – Port Neches residents, local lawyers say TPC plea deal doesn’t add up

By Courtney Pedersen
Staff writer

 

TPC Group’s agreement to pay $30 million in penalties for violating the Clean Air Act could limit the money available for residents still caught up in legal limbo as a result of the company’s explosion in Jefferson County in 2019, according to two local attorneys representing local residents.

The company previously saw $30 million set aside in a bankruptcy trust, which is expected to pay some 10,000 explosion-related claims.

On Tuesday, more than four years after the explosions, the TPC Group pleaded guilty to Clean Air Act violations and agreed to pay over $30 million in criminal fees. The group also has pledged to spend $80 million in bettering its facilities in Houston and Port Neches.

Brent Coon, a court liaison for the case, said the plea and fine in the case means nothing to community members. He pointed to another case involving a BP plant that experienced an explosion in 2005. At the time, BP was fined $50 million — over $80 million today, with inflation.

“TPC had a bigger explosion, burned the whole plant to ground, evacuated an entire city and only pays $30 million,” Coon said. “On top of that, the $30 million isn’t even paid out of their pocket. A lot of is paid out of a bankruptcy trust that’s going to dilute the value of it.”

The TPC explosions in 2019 prompted the evacuation of more than 50,000 people from the area. More than 11 million pounds of extremely hazardous substances were released into the air during the event, causing more than $130 million in offsite property damage and other impacts to human health and the environment, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month.

“The Company has been charged in connection with the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of the incident and has entered a plea for failure to properly implement an operating procedure, which if accepted by the Court, will resolve the matter,” a statement from the TPC Group reads. “The plea agreement includes compliance with a Consent Decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that requires the implementation of certain risk management initiatives and process safety management measures at our Port Neches and Houston facilities.”

At that point, the company will begin to close another explosion-related chapter. But many residents involved, even those who have since moved away, still receive daily reminders of the damage left behind by the explosion.

Like many 2019 Port Neches residents, Julie Shields remembers that Thanksgiving particularly well. She heard a “big boom,” looked outside to see the entire sky lit up and took to Facebook in an attempt to gain more information.

It was there she learned about the first explosion at the Texas Petrochemical Company Group plant fewer than 1.5 miles away from her home.

“Then the next day when the second tower exploded and shot up, I was in the convenience store on the corner of Spurlock and Twin City Highway, and a stiff wind blew (the doors) open,” Shields said.

Shields’ home in Port Neches saw sheet rock damage in nearly every room. She has since moved to China, Texas with her husband, partly due to the explosion, but she still hasn’t been able to get out of the explosion’s shadow.

She still owns the damaged house in Port Neches, and she’s seen a decline in her health, the timing of which she calls suspect.

“I can tell you, I’ve had physicals every year and my blood work was fine up until I had my physicals in August. So, it was August 2020 when my blood started dropping,” Shields said. “Then in April last year, I was diagnosed with leukemia, and I pin it on (the TPC explosion).”

A Facebook group titled “TPC Recovery — Neighbors helping Neighbors” still has more than 2,100 members, giving residents the chance to vent and share concerns in the years since the explosion.

“It’s going to take a lot (to move on) because of my health,” said Shields, who is one of the group’s members. “It’s one thing to forgive, but to move on, it’s hard when you’re still dealing with it. We’re still dealing with fixing the sheet rock in the house in Port Neches and taking care of all that we haven’t fixed because we don’t have the money.”

In the spring of 2020, a contract adjuster representative of TPC’s insurance company offered Shields and her husband $18,000. However, the sheet rock damage, chimney shift and broken rafter in the home is set cost much more, so the two filed the lawsuit.

“We’re not lawsuit people, but I’m not going to let somebody just screw me around like that,” Shields said.

Matt Faye contributed.

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