By BRIAN GRAVES
It was the “boom” heard around Bradley County and it has been chosen the No. 1 Newsmaker of 2017 by the editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.It was an explosion at Wacker …
It was the “boom” heard around Bradley County and it has been chosen the No. 1 Newsmaker of 2017 by the editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.
It was an explosion at Wacker Polysilicon in Charleston that got everyone’s attention the afternoon of Sept. 7.
The incident was being considered a "level 3," which means Wacker's in-house fire department responded to the incident; however, the incident released some of the chemicals used in Wacker’s process.
All of the roads leading into the Wacker area had been closed off and Interstate 75 from mile markers 26 to 37 were closed by the Tennessee Highway Patrol; however, they were reopened a few hours later.
Residents of Charleston were placed under a "shelter in place," advisory along with an advisory to shut off air conditioning units. Walker Valley High School had been set up as a temporary shelter.
The “all clear” was given seven hours after the explosion was first reported and all of the advisories were lifted, then placed back, then lifted again.
Mary Beth Hudson, Wacker vice president and Charleston plant site manager, and Bradley County Emergency Management Director Troy Spence held a news conference concerning the situation just before 11 o'clock that night.
They reported the chemical involved was a low concentrated form of chlorosilane which produces hydrogen chloride when mixed with water, but Hudson said air monitoring at the site was showing the concentration at the perimeter of the site was "far below any kind of health hazard."
"It was almost untraceable," Spence added.
He said mobile air monitors were being driven around to check for readings in the area.
"Right now, they're not picking anything up off-site at all," Spence said.
Hudson did add that Wacker would voluntarily report to all agencies who would normally be involved in any current and subsequent investigation.
"Our primary concern is with our employees', the community's and the responders' safety," Hudson said. "We have taken every precaution possible to ensure that safety."
She said the explosion, caused by "equipment failure," occurred around 3:40 p.m. that afternoon.
Hudson said the chemical leak was "completely unrelated" to a previous leak on Aug. 30. Though Wacker has not presently been cited for that incident, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA), did cite the local industry in 2016 for five violations (one of which was dismissed), and the company paid fines on two of those violations. The largest fine ($4,000) was for "process safety management of highly hazardous materials," while the other fine ($2,450), was for "respiratory protection." Both citations were from Aug. 8, 2016.
Spence explained the reasons the advisories went back into effect was because teams were attempting to tamper the vapor cloud "through the roof of a building."
"When the wind changed, it did not allow us to have access to take care of the vapor, so we had to bring in additional equipment and move some of the equipment on the scene to take care of this vapor cloud," Spence said.
"We tell our neighbors we are a very safe operation," Hudson said. "Safety is our primary concern. A lot of the actions we have taken that have been visible to the community have been to safeguard the community and, in some ways, that may seem scary. But in essence, it's actually precautions to make sure everyone is safe and sound."
Wacker announced shortly after it would temporally shut down operations as it was reported that two Wacker employees sustained injuries on-site, while "there were some off-site people who drove themselves to the hospital to be monitored," according to Spence.
He added four Bradley County Sheriff's Office employees also drove themselves to Tennova Healthcare-Cleveland to be monitored.
The incident also pointed out problems with how social media tended to aggravate the situation.
Bradley County Emergency Services Director Shawn Fairbanks commented that "social media has killed this very unfairly."
"It caused a lot of problems for us and I think that it's still not stopping completely," he said.
Fairbanks talked of pictures that have been posted of a green dye in creeks.
"That dye is not from Wacker," Fairbanks said. "That is from Cleveland Utilities checking to make sure nothing is getting into their sewer systems. They are continuing that through Monday. It's a pretty green, just don't worry about it. It's not toxic."
The other reports concerned the number of people sent to hospitals.
"And, the amount that are dead. No one is dead," Fairbanks said. "There was one burn patient, one that has chest pains, and a Wacker firefighter who had heat exhaustion. Those are the ones transported from the scene."
Wacker announced it would be joined by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and an independent company in analyzing the explosion.
"What we had was an equipment malfunction in our hydrogen compression area," Hudson said. "That caused a hydrogen leak, and that is what caused the incident."
"There was significant damage to the building where this hydrogen compressor is located, and we are getting a third party in here to make sure the building is safe for entry, and there is some critical information that we will be able to gather once we get into the building," she said.
The incident drew the ire of area residents, as well as the Charleston City Commission.
"No official in Charleston was notified," Mayor Walter Goode complained. "I was notified by a person in Cleveland — a friend of mine said there was an explosion at Wacker. As a matter of fact, my son and I were at the service station and heard the blast and didn't know what it was. We got home and my wife said it shook the house."
A group of protesters numbering at least 12 gathered near the entrance of the Wacker Charleston plant to protest what they said was the company's unwillingness to talk to them "face to face."
County leaders were later invited for a tour of the facility, with a question-and-answer session to learn more about what happened.
"Everybody is saying [Wacker] is covering up," Commissioner Terry Caywood said.
"I know those comments are out there," Hudson answered. "We have been transparent with the information we have. We are being transparent with you today answering questions even further.
"The fact of the matter is we don't have the root cause defined yet of exactly what happened," Hudson said. "We generally know what happened, but we don't know exactly what failed."
Hudson told the officials she understood the incidents "have put you all in a challenging situation."
The situation also caused Spence to reiterate the importance of signing up for the county’s NEXLE alert service.
"We will continue to finely tune the official emergency public notification system, NIXLE, and encourage the public to access this free system by signing up for text messages to their mobile devices at 888777, the EMA director said. "Text the message 'CBCEMA' to the number to received these public emergency notifications.”
Wacker officials estimate the plant will return to full function sometime this spring.
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