TDEC: Sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds releases were both more than 30 times over allowed limits

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Two separate incidents at Eastman Chemical Co. each led to $45,500 fines from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), TDEC records show.

One was related to the power shutdown experienced in late July 2022 and its aftermath. The other was related to an as-yet unreported incident Nov. 21-22, 2022 when a piece of equipment failed in a system that reduces sulfur dioxide emissions in Eastman’s coal gasification process.

Fallout from the power failure

One order, finalized Aug. 4, 2023, was for “violations of multiple permits” related to the power shutdown. That order, which came with a $45,500 fine, said Eastman sent TDEC a letter Feb. 14, 2023 “reporting additional deviations that resulted from the July 22, 2022 site-wide power failure.”

The order covers a litany of excess emissions of everything from sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). For instance, one vent at the plant emitted 6.73 pounds per hour of excess nitrous oxide on July 22 and 2.5 pounds per hour July 23 — nine times and three times the allowed amounts, respectively by the permit (Permit 572407) covering that operation.

The biggest “deviations,” though, came at vents tied to Permit 573862, which is for the production of alcohol, esters, organic acid, methanol, and cyclohexane dicarboxylic acid in Eastman’s Chemical Manufacturing division.

The Feb. 14 letter said that water flow was lost to four different scrubbers for a total of 4.1 hours during the power shutdown. The lack of water flow meant all VOC and organic emissions from the scrubbers, “including organic hazardous air pollutants, were reported as excess emissions.”

Those included (based on what Eastman said were conservative estimates) 30.9 pounds of volatile organic compounds — about 36 times the amount the permit allows based on a maximum of 0.21 pounds per hour.

“Conservative estimate means that we assumed there was zero water flow and therefore no control of the vent stream,” an Eastman spokesperson told News Channel 11. “We estimated the maximum emissions that we would expect to see from the vent, but they may have been lower if there was any water flow or water left in the scrubber.”

November incident released nearly twice annual sulfur dioxide limit in one day

The second order was for multiple permit violations as well. While most were reported by Eastman as part of semiannual inspections and reporting, one came after TDEC’s “Happy Hill” ambient air monitoring site near Eastman showed a sulfur dioxide concentration more than 1.5 times the national maximum on Nov. 21, 2022.

TDEC contacted Eastman Nov. 23 “to determine a possible cause,” and Eastman responded Dec. 1 to say that a “programmable logic controller” had failed in an operation that reduces emissions from Eastman’s coal gasification process. The failure meant that off-gas from the coal gasifiers was diverted straight to a coal gas flare rather than being routed to a plant that performs “sulfur recovery,” greatly reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide emissions.

The failure occurred at 4:45 p.m. Nov. 21 and was fixed by 9:50 p.m., but cooling that occurred during the shutdown meant it took about 15 more hours for the sulfur recovery operations to get back to normal.

The permit (572407) allows maximum sulfur dioxide emissions of 47.6 pounds per hour and a total of 8.1 tons over a period of 12 consecutive months. Eastman reported emissions many times that hourly amount — more than 1,200 pounds per hour for 19 straight hours and an average of 1,605 pounds per hour over 18 hours.

For the total 21 hours of excess emissions, the coal gas flare emitted almost 30,000 pounds, or 14.98 tons, which is nearly double the permit’s annual allowance in a period of less than 24 hours.

Biggest fines in years

Eastman averaged about five TDEC orders per year between 2016 and 2022, but the average fine amount for those 34 orders was a little over $7,000. Only seven of the fines exceeded $10,000 and only one was for more than $20,000.

So far in 2023, Eastman has received six TDEC orders with fines totaling $99,000. The average annual amount from 2016-2022 was about $35,500 and the highest before this year was $64,250 in 2018.