KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – A fitting failed in an Eastman Chemical Co. steam line and led to the Jan. 31 “steam line failure” that caused debris to rain down on nearby neighborhoods and led to unplanned air and water discharges, the company reported in a brief update Monday.
That accident, which cut power to the plant and caused a shutdown of operations and production, still hasn’t returned to normal yet, the report added.
Eastman Tennessee Operations Site Leader Mark Bogle told News Channel 11 the fitting that failed was over 50 years old. The issue with the fitting was that it was slightly thinner than standard.
“It’s just a matter of it being a non-standard fitting, installed in the mid-60s,” Bogle said. “We had up to that point of failure we had no indication of anything out of the ordinary with that fitting.”
Bogle said it was unlike anything he had seen in his 40+ year career before.
Three weeks after the incident, the company has found no evidence “that indicates any deficiency in the way Eastman’s steam systems are operated or maintained,” the report said.
That said, Eastman is thoroughly inspecting its “steam line distribution system,” which delivers power to its massive Kingsport manufacturing operation, and the company is working with outside experts to evaluate those results.
The 7:30 a.m. incident shook the ground for miles around and was heard at least six miles away. It led to asbestos-containing pipe insulation raining down on and covering several city blocks outside the plant, though Eastman spoke in negative terms at an afternoon news conference the same day about “misinformation on social media” about the material.
Late that night, Eastman put out a release warning neighbors to avoid the debris and acknowledging it may contain asbestos.
The power shutdown contributed to three unplanned wastewater discharges as well as several days of unplanned venting of volatile organic compounds from non-working scrubbers and other outlets as Eastman grappled with knock-on effects from the accident.
Monday’s report said the company is approaching restart with great caution and its investigation with care. It said Eastman inspects its steam piping regularly but “is conducting an inspection of its steam distribution system to ensure integrity of its operations.” The inspection is “well underway” and Eastman is putting as many resources into it “as are safe,” the report said.
“We are focused on both the investigation and safe start-up of portions of the plant impacted by the steam line failure,” Bogle said in a release.
“Keeping our workers and the community safe is the most important responsibility we have.”
The report didn’t indicate when Eastman expected its operations to return to full production. It did provide updates on its work in the community, which has included returning more than 150 calls to its “community care line,” visiting more than 500 residents, mailing debris testing results to 300 Green Acres neighborhood residents and cleaning more than 50 vehicles as well as roofs and gutters.
A crew was in the Green Acres neighborhood next-door to the plant Monday, but Bogle said the majority of the clean-up is complete.
“We do believe that the bulk of the clean-up has been completed,” Bogle said Monday.
Green Acres resident Nancy Steadman said she was satisfied with the clean-up.
“They were looking for asbestos, and then they were picking up some insulation that was here,” Steadman said. “I think they’ve done wonderful.”
The company also conducted nearly 200 air monitoring samples in Green Acres, none of which showed any detectable asbestos. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) spokesperson Kim Schofinski also provided News Channel 11 with 19 sample results that were taken the week of the accident and said all of them “do not indicate any immediate risk to the public.
Eastman has a special page with updates reachable by clicking a headline on the eastman.com homepage. Its phone number for questions about the incident is (423) 229-2273.