CSB Video Addresses Popcorn Polymer Dangers and Strategies

July 21, 2023
Video illustrates alarming findings from TPC mismanagement that led to Texas plant explosion

A new U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) safety video released on Wednesday highlights the dangers of “popcorn polymer” formation in butadiene production.

The CSB video follows the agency’s investigation into the TPC Group Chemical Plant explosion in Port Neches, Texas, on Nov. 27, 2019.

The CSB’s investigation found that the incident at the TPC plant was the result of inadequate management of a butadiene production hazard known as popcorn polymer. The popcorn polymer grew and formed inside a “dead leg” in piping that was created when a process pump was taken out of service for several months. Over a period of 114 days, without recognition by the plant, the popcorn polymer exponentially expanded inside the dead leg until pressure caused the piping section to rupture, releasing flammable butadiene that quickly exploded.

The CSB's new safety video, called “The Danger of Popcorn Polymer: Incident at the TPC Group Chemical Plant,” includes an animation of the events leading to the incident and interviews with CSB board member Sylvia Johnson and the CSB’s lead investigator for the incident Butch Griffin.

A series of explosions destroyed a portion of the TPC facility, damaged nearby homes and businesses and prompted a mandatory evacuation of residents living within four miles of the plant. Several workers and members of the public reported injuries and fires burned at the facility for over a month. The incident caused $450 million in on-site property damage and $153 million in off-site property damage to nearby homes and businesses. Media reports indicated that the blast was felt up to 30 miles away.

In the safety video, Johnson said, “The incident at TPC was the result of a known hazard where popcorn polymer grew and formed inside equipment that was poorly managed and controlled at the facility. Gaps in industry good guidance on the management of popcorn polymer formation played a role. The result was a catastrophic incident that disrupted life at the facility as well as the local community.”

Reiterating CSB’s final report, the safety video covers the four key safety issues that contributed to the incident, including dead-leg identification and control, process hazard analysis action item implementation, control and prevention of popcorn polymer and remotely operated emergency isolation valves. The video also highlights safety recommendations made by the CSB to the TPC Group as well as the American Chemistry Council.

“We believe our final report and recommendations will help facilities that handle and store large quantities of butadiene better control popcorn polymer formation and growth within their processes. Doing so can prevent another terrible incident like the one that occurred at TPC,” Johnson said in the video.

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