KINGSPORT, TN (WJHL) – A Risk Management Plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency outlines Eastman Chemical Company’s worst-case scenarios for the community. While those scenarios could impact the health of people who live or work near Eastman, the company’s top safety experts say the worst case does not mean there would be fatalities.
"There would be people who would (feel the) effects offsite. Illness. Odor," Eastman Chemical Company Process Safety Expert and Risk Management Plan author Pete Lodal said. "People could get sick."
Eastman, like every other company that uses extremely hazardous chemicals, is required to file a Risk Management Plan with the EPA every five years. The plan’s goal is to keep the community safe. Of the thousands of similar companies that have filed Risk Management Plans, Eastman’s safety experts said not a single one has experienced anything close to a worst-case scenario.
Eastman’s toxic worst case scenario involves the release of anhydrous ammonia, according to the plan. The chemical can irritate the eyes and throat and can be fatal in large concentrations, according to federal records. The worst-case scenario assumes all of the company’s multiple safety layers fail, the largest containers disintegrate, chemicals fully release into the air within 10 minutes and the wind blows 360 degrees.
"It’s just virtually impossible to get that scenario in reality," Eastman Health, Safety, Environment and Security Global Director Mark Peal said. "Impact to the community does not mean fatalities. It just means there is an impact. There’s odor in the area."
According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a release of anhydrous ammonia at an Alabama company in 2010 led to the exposures of 150 offsite workers a quarter mile away. According to CSB, 30 of those people were hospitalized, four in an intensive care unit.
Eastman’s safety experts said that release is not comparable with Eastman’s worst case scenario in Kingsport.
"…it’s important to point out that the (Alabama) incident, though it involves the same chemical (ammonia) as our Kingsport site’s worst case scenario, is a very different use of this chemical," Eastman Corporate Communications Director Betty Payne said. "The failure described in the Chemical Safety Board’s report is not possible in Kingsport because our material is not stored under refrigeration."
Depending on the size of Eastman’s worst-case spill, time of day and conditions, federal guidelines show people as close a one-tenth of a mile to as far as a mile or more downwind would need protection. According to the EPA, 2010 U.S. Census data shows 2,785 people live within one mile of Eastman. About half of those people are kids or senior citizens, according to the data.
The biggest flammable risk to the community involves acetaldehyde, according to the plan. Lodal said worst case, there would be a large fire and a big boom, but likely no injuries outside the plant.
"Be a really big fire and you would feel overpressure, similar to what you would feel at a fireworks demonstration where you could feel the boom," he said. "The practicalities are that would never happen. It would be impressive, but it would not be anything that you could not stand and watch from a distance."
Sullivan County Emergency Management Director Jim Bean is in charge of helping direct the response if there’s a problem. He said he’s fully aware of the chemicals at Eastman and their risks.
"I don’t want to blow it off as, ‘Ok, it’s not going to happen,’" he said. "You’ve got to think, ‘We know this is a potential. Our bigger potential is the smaller leak.’ In our line of work, we have to plan for it and we have to admit there is a worst-case scenario, but the likelihood is down the list."
The more likely alternative, according to Eastman, is a smaller release of anhydrous ammonia or hydrogen fluoride, a chemical that can cause severe burns, but in this case would likely only result in a bad smell.
Eastman acknowledges the people most likely to be impacted by any of the scenarios are its employees and contractors. However, the company’s safety experts reminded the public they are members of the community too.
"It behooves us for many reasons not to let things get out of hand, because the most likely people to be impacted are us," Lodal said. "Should it happen, I would be in that off-site impact. I don’t want that to happen to anybody."
"Our design is no release," Peal said. "Keep it in the pipes as we like to say."
Jack Pierce not only lives near Eastman, he retired from the company as a foreman. He said, knowing what he knows, he’s not concerned about the company’s hazardous chemicals.
"I lived it and I know how concerned they are about safety," Pierce said. "If you want to lose your job that same day, break those safety codes out there."
Of the chemicals listed in Eastman’s worst-case scenarios, federal records show the company has released or transferred several hundred tons of anhydrous ammonia and acetaldehyde going back to 2008. According to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Eastman has not exceeded any regulations related to those chemicals in recent years.
According to EPA data, Eastman released or transferred 54,643 pounds of ammonia in 2016, an 11% reduction from the year before and the lowest since at least 2008. In 2016, Eastman released or transferred 58,211 pounds of acetaldehyde in 2016, a 5% drop from the year before and the second lowest since at least 2008, according to EPA data.
Eastman’s safety directors said the company’s worked to drastically reduce the amount of dangerous chemicals the plant uses over the years.
Investigators determined a blocked valve caused explosions at Eastman on October 4, which did not result in serious injuries.
An explosion at Eastman in 1960, caused by high pressure, killed 16 people and injured more than 200 others. An Eastman spokesperson said the company discontinued that type of chemistry after the explosion and added that kind of explosion is not possible today.
In the event there is a public safety risk at Eastman today, Kingsport 911 wants to make sure people are aware thanks to mobile emergency alerts. According to Kingsport 911, only roughly 2,000 people have registered for the alerts so far. To sign up, go to www.kingsporttn.gov, click on alerts and then follow the instructions.
Eastman will file an updated Risk Management Plan with the EPA next summer. To read Eastman’s most recent Risk Management Plan click HERE.