‘Several months’ forecast for plant shutdown

Wacker-Charleston investigation ongoing

By RICK NORTON Associate Editor and BRIAN GRAVES Staff Writer
Posted 9/21/17

In the wake of three incidents since Aug. 30, all of which involved a chemical leak and one of which involved an explosion that shook surrounding homes, WACKER on Wednesday announced its polysilicon …

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‘Several months’ forecast for plant shutdown

Wacker-Charleston investigation ongoing

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In the wake of three incidents since Aug. 30, all of which involved a chemical leak and one of which involved an explosion that shook surrounding homes, WACKER on Wednesday announced its polysilicon plant near Charleston will remain shut down for “several months.”

In an online media statement titled “Root-Cause Investigation at WACKER’s Charleston Plant Underway,” the German-based company cited the Sept. 7 explosion and two additional chemical leaks — and the corporation’s concern for safety — as reasons to extend the north Bradley County plant’s shutdown.

“While we are working diligently toward resuming production, the safety of our employees and the community is our top priority,” said Tobias Brandis, global president of Wacker Polysilicon. “Therefore, production will not start until a thorough investigation is completed and it is certain that the facility is safe.”

In addition to the Aug. 30 and Sept. 7 events, the plant experienced a third incident on Sept. 12 when employees were directed — pursuant to emergency protocol — to shelter in place because of in-plant alarms that were triggered by a slight elevation of residual chemicals stemming from the Sept. 7 explosion and chemical leak.

Bradley County emergency officials reported three people were transported from the site during the Sept. 7 incident. One included a burn patient and another was a plant firefighter who suffered heat exhaustion. A third was reported to be a person who experienced chest pains.

Accounts of how many area residents, and off-site Bradley County Sheriff’s Office deputies, who drove themselves for medical attention for what was reported to be eye and respiratory irritations have varied. The most common number reported was seven.

In the Aug. 30 chemical release, five Wacker Polysilicon workers are reported to have suffered chemical burns.

Prior to Wednesday, the company had not given any timetables for the plant’s operational re-start; rather, officials stressed such decisions would be based on the investigation’s progress and that manufacturing processes would not resume until the safety of employees, plant neighbors and the surrounding community could be assured.

Brandis pointed out, according to the corporation news release, that “... from today’s perspective, restarting will take several months.”

He added, “During the production downtime, we will use personnel to support repair efforts and other site activities as needed. We also will use this downtime to provide our employees with advanced training courses.”

Wacker has hired a third-party to examine the situation, while at the same time investigators from by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are also on site conducting an analysis.

In the meantime, the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant — which became Bradley County’s newest corporate citizen in early 2016 — leadership team is continuing to work toward the possibility of public meetings to update area residents and community leaders on the progress being made in the investigation.

Although details on one or more such public gatherings in the near future are still being developed, it is hoped they could provide the opportunity for face-to-face interaction.

Mary Beth Hudson, site manager for the Wacker-Charleston plant, indicated Wednesday to the Cleveland Daily Banner that details will be announced once they are available, and if the decision is made to go ahead with the gatherings.

The remaining text of today’s online announced by WACKER officials in Munich, reads as follows:

“After the incident at WACKER’s U.S. production site in Charleston, Tennessee, already reported on, root-cause investigation work is now well underway. The explosion on Sept. 7, was caused by a technical defect prompting a leak of hydrogen which subsequently caught fire, thereby severely damaging a small, but important facility of the production plant.

“WACKER has engaged an independent expert team to determine the root cause of the incident and is cooperating with governmental authorities to ensure a safe resumption of operations. Financial effects on WACKER stemming from this incident are expected to be only minor due to insurance coverage for damages and loss of production.

“As already reported, an equipment malfunction led to a hydrogen explosion at the polysilicon production plant in Charleston, Tennessee, on Sept. 7. As a result, damaged piping leaked chlorosilane, a chemical that creates hydrogen chloride as it comes into contact with moisture in the air.

“Assisted by external emergency responders, the site’s firefighters immediately contained the chemical with water. During the incident, two site employees were evaluated at the local hospital and were released the same day. Thanks to the immediate action of all response teams involved, there was no risk to the community.”

Wednesday’s statement attributed to Brandis also specified WACKER remains in close contact with its customers and will keep them informed on polysilicon availability.

Hudson told the Cleveland Daily Banner earlier this week that a meeting including Bradley County Board of Education members, the school system director, and certain local government officials would be held Thursday at the plant site.

In a brief statement emailed to the Banner on Wednesday, Wacker Polysilicon Communications Coordinator Lisa Mantooth specified that although the plant’s production process is not in operation, the site itself remains open.

She said earlier in the day Wednesday’s townhall-type meetings were held on-site with plant employees to provide operational updates.

Mantooth reiterated the corporate statement by Brandis, that “... the safety of our employees and the community is our top priority.”

She added, “Wacker’s commitment to safety remains our focus.”

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