Residents told to shelter in place after chemical plant explosion in Tennessee

Police were dispatched to the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee.

A portion of the Eastman Chemical Co. plant can be seen along the South Holston River in Kingsport, TN. (CREDIT: AP Photo Wade Payne)
A portion of the Eastman Chemical Co. plant can be seen along the South Holston River in Kingsport, TN. (CREDIT: AP Photo Wade Payne)

Emergency crews are responding to reports of an explosion at the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee, which sent flames and plumes of dark smoke billowing into the air on Wednesday morning.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Eastman said that they were “continuing to stabilize and assess the situation.”

Several crews of firefighters were dispatched to the plant on Wednesday morning.

Footage of the explosion shows flames and smoke rising from several locations on the plant, and nearby witnesses told WJHL-TV that they heard the sound of at least two explosions. An Eastman employee who was at the plant on Wednesday told the Kingsport Times News that the explosion was “very very loud,” and that it “blew and ripped part of the building off.”

Thus far, there have been no reported injuries from the incident. Employees at the plant were told to shelter in place, but that order was lifted a few hours after the explosion. Residents that live within a half mile of the plant were also told to remain indoors, with their windows closed and air-conditioning units turned off. That order has not been lifted.

In a statement, Eastman said that the explosion happened around 10 a.m. this morning, and called it a “process upset in the coal gasification area” of the Kingston site. Coal gasification is a process in which coal is converted into a product known as synthetic gas, or syngas. Syngas is comprised mainly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and can be used to generate electric power, or as the building block for manufacturing certain chemicals.

The Kingsport coal gasification facility was the first commercial facility of its kind to be opened in the United States in 1983. A company document from 2005 touts Eastman’s “excellent safety record” with coal gasification, noting that there had been no lost time in the gasification area since 1993, when an employee suffered a sprained ankle from stepping off a curb.

According to Eastman’s website, the company manufacturers “a broad range of chemicals, fibers and plastics” at the Kingsport site. Eastman was also the company that manufactured the crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MHCM) that spilled into the Elk River in West Virginia in 2014. That spill left up to 300,000 West Virginia residents without access to tap water for five days, and sent more than 400 to the hospital. In 2016, Eastman agreed to pay $25 million as part of a class action lawsuit that had alleged Eastman had failed to properly alert the company that owned and operated the storage tanks that the chemical was corrosive — an omission that the lawsuit argued contributed to the eventual spill.

So far in 2017, according to Open Secrets data, Eastman has spent $1,030,000 in lobbying. At least part of that was spent on lobbying related to the EPA’s Risk Management Program, which the Obama administration had proposed updating to better protect public health against explosions at chemical plants. Eastman also petitioned against the Obama administration’s proposed changes to the emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants at off-site waste operations.

The company has also been active in lobbying on issues related to Congress’ 2016 update to the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), including supporting a House version of the bill that environmental groups have characterized as overly friendly to industry and working against more restrictive chemical regulations at the state level. The company has lobbied against EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the past.

Wednesday’s explosion in Kingsport took place the same day that Michael Dourson, the Trump administration’s pick to run the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office, testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as part of his confirmation process. Dourson worked for 20 years as an EPA staff scientist, but left the agency in 1994 to found the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA). At TERA, Dourson worked to produce studies — funded by chemical companies — that downplayed the risks of certain chemicals.

Dourson told the legislators that he would not recuse himself from matters concerning companies that might have funded his work in the past, saying only that he would “rely on EPA ethics officials to determine any issues” that might warrant recusal.