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50,000 people allowed back home after blasts at chemical plant in Texas

Air quality a concern after Texas explosions

Officials in southeast Texas have lifted a mandatory evacuation order that followed two explosions at a petrochemical plant on Wednesday. The evacuation displaced 50,000 people ahead of Thanksgiving, leaving residents to spend the holiday in hotels and makeshift shelters. 

"We've lived here for thirty years and this is the first time this has ever happened," a member of the Parker family told CBS News' Omar Villafranca.

The plant, which manufactures butadiene, a chemical used to make synthetic rubber, is a common sight on the Texas Gulf Coast. The area has the highest concentration of oil refineries in the nation, and has been repeatedly rocked by dangerous accidents over the past year. 

Three people were injured in this week's explosions. The blasts caused windows to shatter and doors to rip off their hinges in the nearby town of Port Neches, about 80 miles east of Houston. After the second explosion —13 hours after the first — an evacuation of a four-mile radius around the plant was ordered. 

Authorities say the air quality is now safe, but plumes of smoke can still be seen emerging from the plant. That smoke is coming from several isolated fires still blazing at the facility. Officials say they cannot predict when those fires will be fully extinguished.

"We are in a position to say it's contained. We feel comfortable with the efforts that have been made by our firefighters," Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the top county official, said at a news conference in Port Neches, The Associated Press reports

FILE PHOTO: A process tower flies through air after exploding at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant in Port Neches
A process tower flies through air after exploding at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant, after an earlier massive explosion sparked a blaze at the plant in Port Neches, Texas, November 27, 2019. Erwin Seba/Reuters

Branick, however, also cautioned families returning home that debris from the fires could contain asbestos, since construction on the plant began in the 1940s, when asbestos was still commonly used. He urged people to stay away from any "white, chalky substance" and call health officials if any is found.

Environmental activist Hilton Kelley told CBS News' Villafranca that the extent of the danger may not be known. 

"Smoke is still coming from the source where the explosion happened, there is still toxic fumes in that smoke," Kelley said. "We know for a fact that there's benzene in that plume, we know that there's 1,3-butadeine and we just discovered that there's also asbestos in that plume... But just how much is still uncertain at this particular time and we want to make sure that all our citizens are safe."

County officials said they will continue to monitor the air quality as long as smoke emerges from the plant.

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