US TPC BD plant fire contained, evacuation order lifted

Author: Al Greenwood

2019/11/29

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Firefighters have contained the blaze that started two days ago at TPC Group's butadiene (BD) plant in Port Neches, Texas, US, and authorities on Friday lifted an evacuation order.

The plant's two lines can produce a total of 426,000 tonnes/year of BD, which ICIS estimates accounts for 16.4% of US capacity and 2.7% of global capacity. TPC also stores methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) at the site.

The fire involved the unit 10 processing unit and the block 5 spherical tank unit of the complex, said Jeff Branick, county judge of Jefferson County, which includes Port Neches.

He made his comments during a press conference that was broadcast by the local television station KFDM Channel 6.

The unit 10 processing unit and block 5 spherical tank unit have been separated from other parts of the complex that could feed the fire, Branick said.

The complex is now limited to nine fires, all of which are gas-pressured fires, Branick said. Three of them are being fed by the block 5 area.

Such gas-pressured fires need to burn out, he said. Those monitoring the fires are relying on thermal imagery so they can measure how much material remains in the tanks. Some of those tanks have little material left, while others still have a significant amount.

Firefighters do not know how long the plant will continue burning, he said.

Branick noted a setback in the early morning hours, when a vehicle hit a hose. He did not say which day this took place. It knocked out fire water for three hours. Fire water was restored at about 9:30 hours Houston time (15:30 hours GMT).

On Thursday, the flow rate of the water being used to fight the fires was 35,000 gal/minute (132,000 litres/minute), Branick said. Given the progress in fighting the fire, that was reduced to 19,000 gal/minute.

Progress will depend in part on the weather, said Troy Monk director of health, safety and security at TPC Group. Earlier, fog had caused a setback because it made it more difficult to keep track of firefighters and monitor the progress of the fire.

Meteorologists forecast rain later, and that could be another setback. For gas-pressured fires, it is best to allow them to burn out and not to douse them out.

Branick does not know what caused the fire, and it could be several months before one is established.

The fire started on Wednesday at 1:00 Houston time following an explosion.

The initial explosion sent debris flying throughout the area, which landed on the yards of many peoples' home. Some of that debris included asbestos from equipment that was installed back in the 1940s, Branick said.

A second explosion took place later that same day, leading to the evacuation order.

Following the blast, Huntsman shut down a propylene oxide (PO) unit at its complex that is nearby the TPC plant.

Huntsman did not specify which other units it may have shut down as a precaution. The company also makes MTBE at Port Neches, and it could use feedstock provided by the TPC complex.

Huntsman is still running its crackers and some of the units downstream from it, the company said.

Lion Elastomers shut down production of its emulsion synthetic butadiene styrene (ESBR) plant in Port Neches as a precaution.

Meanwhile, TPC Group declared force majeure (FM) on BD from Port Neches.

The fire at the TPC plant comes amid a price slump for BD, caused by rising supplies from the new fleet of US crackers and weaker demand from downstream rubber markets.

Click here to access the TPC incident topic page
Additional reporting by Amanda Hay and Morgan Condon
Photo credit: JDrago Photo/Shutterstock