Discussion between city, Eastman should be open to public

Editorial Board • Oct 31, 2017 at 12:44 PM

In the wake of its failure to publicly respond quickly to explosions and a fire at the plant Oct. 4, Eastman Chemical Co. may meet in the near future with Kingsport police and fire officials to discuss how communications might be improved.

But will the public once again be left waiting for answers, as when nearly two hours passed before Eastman notified neighbors that a “process upset” had occurred?

If there is a roundtable discussion among Eastman and emergency services — and there certainly should be — it should take place in a public forum open to public comment. That’s what Eastman would have done decades ago when corporate communications were more focused on the plant’s local image.

The explosions that occurred at about 10:40 a.m. Oct. 4 could be heard all over the city. But nearly two hours went by before Eastman publicly responded with a nebulous statement that “a process upset ... created a loud noise and visible plume” and that nearby residents should go indoors and shut off air conditioning. Many did. Others, fearing the worst was yet to come, herded children into cars and left town.

More than three hours went by before a mass emergency notification system call from city emergency officials informed residents in the area of the plant that while there was no chemical release, they should nonetheless remain indoors and not run their air conditioning systems.

Sullivan County EMS and the Kingsport Fire Department immediately responded with at least seven units, including two engines and 14 firefighters. The Kingsport Police Department had as many as 16 police officers on the scene either to provide traffic control or to work as liaisons at the command center.

Among those concerned about the communications failure is Kingsport Police Chief David Quillin, who told members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen recently that there has been “a lot of discussions and communications about the situation. For police and fire, we want to be as proactive as possible to improve effective communication lines all throughout the city.”

Quillin said that the department has been in contact with Eastman since the day of the explosion and that fire, police and Eastman officials are talking about holding a roundtable discussion.

A time and place for that meeting has not been determined, but it should be a venue sufficient for the public to attend, and be part of the process of examining how communications can be improved, as they clearly need to be.

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