For nearly a decade, the Eastman Chemical Company has been emitting unsafe levels of sulfur dioxide into the communities surrounding its Kingsport, Tenn. plants in violation of national air quality standards.
A new audit by the Tennessee Comptroller, released last week, found that the state has more work to do to bring the company in line with Clean Air Act standards. It is the only area in Tennessee that has failed to meet those national guidelines, the audit noted.
Eastman manufactures chemicals, fibers and plastics used in products that include paint, adhesives, textiles, sports bottles, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The company relies, in part, on coal-fired boilers to power its operations. The coal-fired plants are the source of the sulfur dioxide emissions, which can damage human respiratory systems and contribute to acid rain.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s “Air Pollution Control Division has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency for nine years to lower the sulfur dioxide release levels around the Eastman Chemical Company’s facility in Kingsport and must continue until attainment is achieved,” the audit said.
Eastman Chemical has been in the process of converting its coal-fired boilers to natural gas-powered boilers, a company spokesman noted. The company invested $85 million to convert five boilers from coal to gas, which reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 70%, Eastman spokesperson Amanda Allman said in an emailed statement.
In 2021, the company invested another $10 million to add sulfur dioxide emission controls to two more coal-fired boilers, the statement said.
Those steps are expected to bring emissions down to acceptable federal standards, according to preliminary 2022 monitoring data and models, she said.
“Protecting air quality is an essential aspect of Eastman’s environmental program,” the statement said. “We take our commitment to operating responsibly very serious(ly), and we continue to do our part to reduce risk and emissions to ensure the safety of our local community.”
But some local residents remain frustrated that Eastman and the state have failed to bring the air emissions to acceptable levels nine years after the problems were first identified.
“It’s beyond disappointing that Eastman and TDEC have not managed to bring Sullivan County in compliance,” said Dan Firth, a longtime Kingsport resident and member of the Sierra Club. “The community still continues to be subject to those emissions.”
State regulators bear responsibility for ensuring air polluters meet federal emissions guidelines. Regulators with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) last month submitted a proposed new state implementation plan to meet those goals. The proposed plan will require Eastman to “install updated technology” to lower sulfur dioxide levels.
A public hearing to consider the plan has been scheduled for Dec. 14.
“The Air Division will continue to work as expeditiously as possible to bring the area into containment,” a response from TDEC officials contained in the Comptroller audit said.
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