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Eastman confident explosions won't happen again

Hank Hayes • Oct 4, 2018 at 7:30 AM

KINGSPORT — One year after explosions at its coal gasification facility, Eastman doesn’t expect a repeat incident.

“We’ve made improvements related to the October 4, 2017 incident that occurred at our Kingsport site related to the mechanical failure that led to explosions in our coal gasification operations,” Eastman spokesman Brad Lifford said in an email. “These improvements give us confidence that a similar event will not happen again. In addition, we have improved our internal and external communications procedures and upgraded our existing emergency communications center, so it is optimally designed for better and faster communications between Eastman, first responders, the city and the county, and area communities.”

The coal gasification facility makes methanol and acetic anhydride.

Because the area was evacuated prior to the explosions, no fatalities or serious injuries were reported, although residents in neighborhoods surrounding the plant site were advised to shelter in place for as long as five hours.

Eastman acknowledged last April that there were “two main areas” to which the global specialty chemical company could have better responded following the incident.

The first, said Eastman Senior Vice President, Chief Legal and Sustainability Officer David Golden, was having an extended shelter-in-place footprint across Kingsport.

Golden said the second area was the company was not quick enough in getting information out.

“This included not just the city and county and the media. It included our own employees that day,” Golden noted. “If you don’t get a quick first step, you are behind, and we did not get a quick first step. … The communications nerve center is on the first floor, and it needed to move to the third floor, which had us behind and compounded as the day went on.”

Also during that month, Eastman was cited for four “serious” violations in a report released by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA).

The main violation, concerning a faulty valve, resulted in a $2,400 fine. The three other violations, which concerned maintaining the integrity of Eastman’s process equipment, were dropped..

According to an incident report provided by Eastman, TOSHA said water was unintentionally fed to a gasifier instead of a coal slurry feed. “This stopped the oxidation reaction in the gasifier,” TOSHA reported. “ … Due to the lack of slurry feed, pure oxygen continued to be fed to the gasifier which was not consumed immediately. This condition led to high oxygen concentrations in downstream equipment.”

The result was two explosions beginning at about 10:50 a.m.

TOSHA claimed Eastman did not establish and implement written procedures to maintain the “on-going integrity” of the so-called “MarPac” valve.

In a separate report issued by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Eastman indicated the failed valve would be replaced with a “more reliable” automatic valve.

Last year’s incident happened on the same day 58 years ago when 16 people lost their lives in a blast on the company’s manufacturing site.

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