Eastman power outage stops production, leads to wastewater discharge
Eastman’s wastewater treatment plant, at left, discharges into the South Fork Holston River.
Power still not restored as of early Wednesday evening
By Jeff Keeling
Eastman Chemical Co.’s first plant-wide power outage since 1998 occurred Wednesday morning and resulted in no injuries, a complete production shutdown, a small methanol release into the air and the release of an as-yet-unknown volume of wastewater into the Holston River’s South Fork. Eastman has its own power plant, and electricity had not been restored as of late afternoon Wednesday. Officials said they had no timeline for the restart of manufacturing production.
The primary chemicals in the wastewater released include acetic acid, isopropyl alcohol and methanol. Officials characterized the spilled water as “dilute wastewater” that should not cause any “distressed aquatic life.”
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Eastman officials said the outage occurred around 10 a.m.
Eastman’s Tracy Kilgore said the company immediately notified all affected local, state and federal agencies, including the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“The company anticipates no impact to human health or long-term impact to the environment,” Kilgore said before introducing Vice President and General Manager for Tennessee operations Parker Smith and Manager of Environmental Affairs for Tennessee Operations Richard Strang.
“We generate our own power on site, and it happened within our power generation facility,” Parker Smith, Eastman’s vice president and general manager for Tennessee operations, said. “We’re still … evaluating exactly what that was. We have some idea and we’re in the process of isolating that so we can begin a safe and orderly restart of the plant.”
Smith said a few of the plant’s boilers were unaffected, but not enough to avoid a total shutdown. Some of the unaffected boilers were being brought back online during the conference. He said officials didn’t yet know what had caused the outage.
The shutdown resulted in a methanol release that Smith said occurred due to the plant’s electrostatic precipitators’ inoperability after the power loss. He characterized it as of a low enough level not to trigger Eastman’s own internal plant wide “safe haven” alert, and Eastman spokesman Brad Lifford later said the release was “below reportable levels.”
Additionally, for up to an hour, what Eastman Manager of Environmental Affairs for Tennessee Operations Richard Strang called “dilute wastewater” spilled into the Holston. Pumps at the base of Eastman’s wastewater treatment plant normally send that water up to the plant, Strang said. Those pumps are “double-ended,” with two sources of power, but in this case both sources failed.
Eventually, as water from all the plant’s operations flowed into the pump area, some — Strang said no one yet knew how much — overflowed into the river. Smith said by 11 a.m. Eastman had worked out a fix with power from Appalachian Electric Power, Kingsport’s municipal supplier, and the pumps were operable.
Strang characterized the wastewater as containing low concentrations of, primarily, acetic acid, isopropyl alcohol and methanol, said it was “the combined wastewater from the whole facility.” Eastman’s more concentrated wastes, he said, are either captured for reuse or incinerated.
“It’s only the dilute wastewaters that end up going to our wastewater treatment plant,” Strang said. He said normally, biological processes break down the dilute wastewater, as bacteria consume the chemicals until levels are low enough for release.
“The bacteria that populate our wastewater treatment plant are in the river as well,” Strang said. “That’s why we said … that we don’t expect any environmental impact.”
“There were no distressed fish, and we wouldn’t expect any distressed aquatic life from this discharge. If this discharge went on month after month after month, you would find that the river slowly lost its dissolved oxygen and wouldn’t support aquatic life.”
He said Eastman immediately began communicating with emergency agencies at local, state and federal levels and notified downstream users of the release.
Smith said Eastman is continuing to send out packaged inventory to customers, but bulk chemicals “are not moving.”
“Our supply chain folks are also involved with us right now, and we’re doing our very best to minimize any impact to our customers,” Smith said. “That’s all part of our restart plan.”
As for turning the power back on, Smith said that needs to happen as soon as possible, but in an orderly way.
“You’ve got to have utilities in order to start the powerhouses, so there’s an order you have to follow,” he said. “We’ve got a plan to do that in we’re in a process of working through that plan.”