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A TPC Group chemical plant is shrouded by smoke as the fire continues in Port Neches, about east of Houston. Photo: Steven Song/Xinhua via Getty Images

Officials warned people who live near a southeast Texas petrochemical plant Saturday "not to touch" debris from fires still burning from a series of explosions on Thanksgiving's eve because of possible asbestos exposure, ABC reports.

What's new: Officials said the fires at the TPC facility in Port Neches had been contained, enabling 50,000 evacuated residents to return home, per CBC News, which notes "plumes of smoke" could still be seen at the plant but the air quality was found to be safe.

What happened: The first blast on Wednesday wounded three plant employees as it "blew out the windows and doors of nearby homes" and sent toxic plumes into the air just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, per CBS News. Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick told a news conference it knocked out power to the plant, per CNN.

  • A second explosion in the afternoon, 13 hours later, propelled a tower into the air "like a missile" toward the nearby Port Neches-Groves High School, Branick said.
  • A third blast followed soon after, reports Fox26 Houston, which notes it's hard to say precisely how many explosions there have been, but several smaller ones have been noted.
  • There were "a bunch" of towers left, Branick said, per the New York Times. "The concern is that if another one were to launch ... and it were to go into the tank farm, the results would be catastrophic," he said.
  • The evacuation order was in effect within a 4-mile radius from the plant, per AP.

The big picture: Concerns have been raised about "the adequacy of health and safety regulations as well as the environmental effects from the accidents," after a string of fires and explosions at chemical plants in recent years, the Times notes.

  • The NYT points to an April fire at a Houston chemical facility that killed one person and critically wounded two others; a petrochemical plant blaze in March just outside the Houston metropolitan area that "burned for days;" a 2017 explosion during a tropical depression at a plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston; and a deadly blast at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant in 2013.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

Go deeper

USAID chief tests positive for coronavirus

An Air Force cargo jet delivers USAID supplies to Russia earlier this year. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of senior administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

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Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

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