State investigators believe they now know what caused last year’s explosions at Eastman Chemical Company.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation closed the state’s investigation into the October 4, 2017 blasts in Kingsport this week.
The agency’s final report determined Eastman was not at fault and could not have prevented the explosions. The seven-page memo blamed blockage of a 30-year-old valve as the most likely cause.
After six months of investigation, TDEC rule the incident “a malfunction” in the chemical company’s coal gasification plant. In addition, the state ruled Eastman properly responded to prevent health and safety issues downstream and on site.
The blasts, according to the investigative report, led to the release of a small amount of extremely hazardous gases, including roughly 50 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 335 pounds of sulfur dioxide, plus possible small leaks of methanol.
Since TDEC ruled this “a malfunction,” the agency is not recommending any fines or penalties for excess emissions related to the explosions, but is recommending the company change its standard operating procedures.
Eastman officials told the state the company intends to replace the failed manual valve with a more reliable automatic valve, according to the report.
As the state investigated the valve blockage they determined Eastman employees did not have a written procedure to rely upon when closing the valve. Instead, operators learned on the job from other operators.
“The typical routine was for the operator to pull the chain until it no longer moved, then hang on the chain with their full body weight to be certain it would not turn anymore,” the report said.
The investigation also found when Eastman submitted a report to the state in December, the company “did not include information regarding the failure of the ball valve and stated only that ‘During a routine switch of gasification units, an equipment malfunction allowed water instead of coal slurry to enter the #1 gasifier.'”
“The malfunction was a mechanical failure at a critical point in the start-up and switch to our second gasifier,” Eastman Chemical Company Corporate Communications Director Betty Payne said Thursday when contacted for comment. “We have implemented a series of changes so that we can be confident this won’t happen again.”
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