KINGSPORT – “My window vibrated and it will be a moment I will never forget in my life.”
That’s how Eastman Chemical Co. Board Chair and CEO Mark Costa described what he was feeling on Oct. 4, 2017 after an explosion occurred in the company’s coal gasification area.
Costa relived that day and the aftermath while speaking to about 200 business leaders and elected officials at Thursday’s Regional Leaders Breakfast held at the MeadowView Marriott.
Eastman’s board of directors, said Costa, was coming to Kingsport the day of the blast, which resulted in no serious injuries but did impact the company’s bottom line.
“In fact they were flying in,” Costa said of the board members. “About 45 minutes after the incident … (Eastman Executive Vice President) Brad Lich was on a plane and they were turning over the plant … (someone) looks out the window (at the plant site) and says ‘Is that right?’ Brad said ‘I’m sure it’s fine.’”
“For those of you who know Eastman, the coal gas facility is the heart and soul of our company,” Costa observed. “It is the beginning of the entire site … a vast majority of our earnings were at stake … the most important thing with this event by far was safety. I’m incredibly proud how our teams funneled their safety training … we had enough time to get people clear … as a result we didn’t have any serious injuries.”
A massive repair operation ensued and Eastman has since restarted the facility which is key to Eastman’s acetyl product line.
At the breakfast, however, Costa and Eastman Chief Legal and Sustainability Officer David Golden faced a question about the company’s slow response to ask the surrounding public to shelter in place.
“Part of the reason for the delay was we were trying to figure out exactly what was going on,” Golden explained. “One of the fantastic things about media today is when you have a camera on Bays Mountain, the community is actually looped into really well about what is going on. They are seeing it the same time we are seeing it … I had people texting me within 10 minutes from around the world saying ‘I saw you on the news. I hope everything is OK.’
“We had to know that what we communicated to the community was accurate. We are reviewing how do we do that faster and not only that, but give more detail more quickly.”
Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine stood up at the event and said he appreciated that Eastman communicated when they had the facts.
“I can tell you the interaction between Eastman and the medical community couldn’t be better … it didn’t become a major medical event,” Levine announced at the breakfast.
Costa concluded: “We also know we can do a better job working with the community when a situation like that happens … we have been working with community leaders and first responders to make that happen, whether it’s this kind of event or active shooter.”