Wires

Texas county rules out lawsuit against chemical plant over fire

HOUSTON, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The top official of an east Texas county that evacuated 60,000 residents last week after a petrochemical plant exploded and caught fire said on Tuesday he does not plan to sue the company, and will leave potential litigation to environmental bodies.

TPC Group's Port Neches, Texas, site has been burning since Wednesday following a massive explosion that injured three workers and led County Judge Jeff Branick to order an evacuation out of fear of further explosions. The 218-acre (88-hectare) plant makes flammable petrochemicals used in tires and gasoline.

The plant fire, which was still burning on Tuesday, has been contained and officials last weekend allowed residents to return to their homes. Federal, state and local investigators are at the site, which is about 90 miles (145 km) east of Houston, but have not yet determined a cause.

Branick on Tuesday said he would leave any charges over the disaster to the state Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to spokeswoman Allison Getz.

"The TCEQ and the EPA will handle any litigation against TPC," she said on behalf of Branick. "If any litigation is contemplated, they will consult with the county."

TPC did not have an immediate comment.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesman Brian McGovern said on Tuesday the agency is continuing its investigation. The state's air monitoring has not detected any emissions that would cause health problems.

The petrochemical industry should be "held to the highest standard of compliance," TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said last week, pledging to review the state's compliance efforts following an "unacceptable trend of significant incidents."

Firefighting efforts have been hampered several times, including on Monday when an automobile drove through a barricade and cut lines supplying water to firefighters, who were able to keep the fire contained until the water supply was restored, The Beaumont Enterprise reported on its website. The original blast also cut water to fire suppression systems for a time.

Monday's incident was second time drivers have accidentally cut water lines at the site, the newspaper reported. The first time was on Friday.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; editing by Richard Pullin)