I.C. MURRELL — “Very rare occurrence” doesn’t leave much assurance

Published 12:12 am Friday, December 13, 2019

Since Nov. 27, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick has united with leaders of first responders, TPC Group officials, the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in working to control the effects of multiple explosions at TPC’s Port Neches Operations site.

We’ve taken heed to all information in their efforts of transparency, when a shelter-in-place or evacuation order has been issued and when we’ve been assured the air would cause no (immediate) harm.

I didn’t think to check Port Arthur’s air quality when I first moved here four years ago, but on more than one occasion in recent days, Branick offered us assurance the air quality is better than some locations in Texas.

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“When I was a little boy in Port Arthur, there were explosions that happened pretty frequently,” Branick said during a Nov. 5 conference. “The air quality was bad. The water quality was bad.

“Over the years and through the 1990s and early 2000s, we saw pollution control equipment installed after [a state proposition] that allowed for tax exemptions for pollution control equipment. The quality of air has improved dramatically over the last 25 years. We have cleaner air than Austin or Houston and The Woodlands and most of the other areas of Texas. Our water quality has been fantastic. You couldn’t catch a fish in the coastal waterway as a little boy, and if you did, you wouldn’t want to eat it. Some of the best fishing spots in the county are right off Texaco Island, outside Valero and Motiva refinery.”

Scientist, I am not. But a quick check of the EPA’s air quality index, or AQI, shows Beaumont-Port Arthur’s indices range from 4 for sulfur dioxide, 15 for nitrogen dioxide, 18 for ozone over an 8-hour period. AQIs are not issued for butadiene, which is housed at TPC Port Neches and has been a cause for more immediate concern in our area since Nov. 27.

An AQI range of 0-50 is considered good. No metropolitan area in Texas has an AQI higher than 50 for any pollutant. Beaumont-Port Arthur’s AQIs for some pollutants stand better than some areas, and some areas post better AQIs than Beaumont-Port Arthur for other chemicals.

United, Branick and leaders have given us their assurances all will be OK. For example:

“I don’t want this being characterized as something that is a regular occurrence because it’s not,” he said Nov. 5. “It’s a very rare occurrence. Plant safety and the human health and safety have become No. 1 over the last 25 years. It was an afterthought when I was growing up.”

I would hope that is the case. Branick knows this air a lot better than me, for sure.

But when smog visibly blackens the air from a facility that’s faced multiple federal and state fines for safety hazards, not everyone feels assured. The smog might not be visible, but the problem hasn’t gone away.

I.C. Murrell is the editor of The Port Arthur News. He can be reached at ic.murrell@panews.com.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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