KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – The cause of a Monday morning “steam line failure” at Eastman Chemical Co. that caused explosion-like noise, shook the ground miles away and spread debris into surrounding neighborhoods could take weeks to determine, Eastman officials said Monday afternoon.
The event “caused vibrations that were felt in the surrounding neighborhood along with loud noises that were due to the release of heavy steam,” Eastman Director of Corporate Communications Betty Payne said at the beginning of a virtual news conference.
Five people, some employees and some contractors, sustained minor injuries in a 7:30 a.m. event that Eastman officials declined to term an explosion — officially defined as “a violent and destructive shattering or blowing apart of something.” Two of the injured were treated at Holston Valley Medical Center and released while the other three were treated at Eastman’s internal medical facility and released.
A utility steam line that delivers power to Eastman manufacturing operations and heats and powers the company’s buildings failed somewhere in the northeast section of the massive manufacturing plant. Witnesses from as close as a quarter-mile away and as far as five miles away described an initial very loud noise followed by a loud rumbling that lasted more than 10 minutes, as well as ground shaking.
The accident resulted in lost power at the plant and though that’s been restored, Eastman’s manufacturing operations have been shut down and will follow a “safe restart” protocol that is likely to take several days.
Payne and Vice President of Operations, Excellence and Transformation, Michelle Caveness, spoke and took questions at a mid-afternoon virtual news conference.
Neither of the two would offer direct advice regarding potential hazards present in debris for people in the immediate neighborhood surrounding the site, where significant amounts of lightweight material landed on cars, lawns and homes. They pointed instead to “misinformation on social media” and Payne said Eastman “wanted to make sure that we shared correct information about what happened in today’s event.”
Beyond the fact that a high-pressure steam line failed, though, Payne and Caveness offered few specifics.
Some social media comments speculated on whether the debris might contain asbestos or other harmful materials used in wrapping the pipe. Payne did say the debris is being lab tested by Eastman staff.
“We are also sending it off-site for third-party lab analysis,” Payne said. “It’ll take some time for us to get those results and we will share those with you when we get them.”
The debris landed over a fairly wide area and with its composition unknown, Caveness was asked whether the company had any advice for how people should approach cleaning up. She had no specific advice, instead saying Eastman “would encourage our community neighbors not to speculate on what the source of that is, but there is a phone number that we would encourage our community members to call.”
People with questions about the debris and other impacts to their property, Caveness said, could call a number at Eastman — (423) 229-2273 — to report issues and get more information.
As of late Monday afternoon, that recording told people they could get free car wash vouchers at Eastman’s employee center. It provided no warnings or comment about the nature of the debris.
Caveness said Eastman understands the community’s concerns and that “safety is Eastman’s top priority. She said the company followed what she called “a robust safety process” after Monday morning’s explosion.
“We appreciate your support during this time and we apologize for the concern that this has caused within the community,” she said.
Eastman is working to determine just what happened Monday morning – and what caused it, Caveness said. She said even though the explosion resulted in a loss of power, “operations were quickly and safely shut down.”
As of mid-afternoon Monday Eastman was still working to reestablish power and utilities. Once that is complete, Caveness said, the company will work toward restarting its operations.
“As we do this, you may hear noise from occasional steam releases but those should be normalized releases and not like what was experienced during the event this morning,” she said.
Eastman had its employees remain in their work areas during the event, Payne said. The company didn’t issue a community “shelter in place” order, she said, “as there was no danger to the surrounding community.”
While the event didn’t present a danger to the community according to Eastman, one part of the response would have been different if it had. Eastman no longer uses a siren system for emergencies that could cause danger to the public.
“The notification system now comes through the reverse 911 system with the city,” Payne said, adding that citizens must sign up for that service in order to receive any such notifications. Citizens may sign up by clicking here.
Even as it seeks answers about the cause, Eastman is trying to figure out to what extent the mishap will impact its operations.
Asked about the numbers of employees in the area of the accident and whether it occurred inside or outside a building, Caveness demurred – though she said utility lines, which these were, aren’t typically inside buildings.
“We’re in the process of investigating the extent and the root causes,” she said. “I would expect that we’ll have additional details in the coming weeks on the extent of the impact and the location of those lines.”
Caveness said at this point, Eastman officials know of no significant damage to buildings at the plant. That doesn’t mean a return to normal operations in the immediate future, however.
“We have a protocol that gives guidance into which processes start up in which order to make sure that there’s an orderly and safe restart, and that will be what we are stepping through in the next few days.”
While most of Eastman’s operation was shut down this morning and will be subject to the “orderly restart,” Caveness said its systems tied to environmental control continue to function. “We ensure that we have condensing capabilities on tanks, that systems aren’t venting and releasing materials that would be harmful to the environment,” she said.
Eastman has assigned a principal investigator that is conducting a “root cause assessment.” Systems won’t be restarted before accurate information has been gathered “and to ensure that we can continue operation in a safe manner.”
Eastman uses steam to provide heat for its manufacturing processes and to heat and power its buildings. Caveness said the company has a “very thorough” preventive maintenance program but did not provide information about how long the particular pipes had been in place, exactly when they’d last been inspected or what the results of that inspection had been. She said an inspection would likely have been annual.
Caveness said the company follows “a very assertive process” in these types of investigations. She did say, however, that investigations into operations issues can last for weeks.
“Certainly we expect to be getting additional insights within the next seven to 14 days,” she said.
She said Eastman had “immediate contact” with regulatory agencies, which in this case could include at the least Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Tennessee Occupation, Safety and Health Administration and the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.
“We’ve been in touch with the state related to our current operations – that’s for both employee safety as well as any environmental questions,” Caveness said.
TDEC spokesperson Kim Schofinski said staff from that agency are on site at Eastman as of late Monday “to monitor any potential environmental impacts and we will continue to evaluate this ongoing situation.”
She said the Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency was also working the scene.