Wacker investigation includes 2 agencies, independent firm

Site manager apologizes for ‘confusion and fear’

By ALLEN MINCEY Staff Writer
Posted 9/12/17

Wacker Polysilicon North America will be joined by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and an independent company …

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Wacker investigation includes 2 agencies, independent firm

Site manager apologizes for ‘confusion and fear’

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Wacker Polysilicon North America will be joined by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and an independent company in analyzing last week’s explosion and chemical leak at the Charleston facility.

The incident occurred around 3:40 p.m. Thursday, and Wacker and the Bradley County Emergency Management Agency worked at containing the chemical release that afternoon into the early evening.

Since then, there have been many remarks on social media of residents having some health issues following the incident.

“First of all, I want to apologize for any confusion and fear that this incident may have caused in the community and with our employees,” Wacker Charleston Plant Manager Mary Beth Hudson told the Cleveland Daily Banner in a one-on-one interview Monday morning. “The plant is now safe and secure and we have suspended operations and we have done that until we can be sure that we can understand the root cause of the incident and can implement any corrective actions necessary.

“We will not restart operations until we are sure it is safe to do so,” Hudson continued. “To that point we are working closely with TOSHA and TDEC, and we appreciate their support on coming to the resolution of this incident.”

The plant manager said there is no time frame for operations to be restarted.

Hudson explained what occurred at the plant.

“What we had was an equipment malfunction in our hydrogen compression area,” she 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 explosion that occurred was on the first floor of a multi-level building. Hudson said that the structural engineering company will “help us evaluate the building and what we need to do to shore up the building.”

“We have also proactively hired a third party and company to help with the investigation to ensure that we get to the root cause of the incident,” the plant manager noted.

Hudson explained the chemical leak at the site involved trichlorosilane, a chemical that creates hydrogen chloride as soon as it comes into contact with moisture in the air.

“The most effective way to contain hydrogen chloride is to spray it with water,” she said. “The HCl gas is very soluble in water — so it wants to go to water — so then it becomes the liquid form which we can collect in our wastewater treatment system and we can treat.”

She said spraying the chemical with water was “how we assured we were able to contain this material and not pose a threat to the community.”

Hudson explained the company was able to monitor the leak “and we found that we did not have high levels of HCl gas exiting the fence line.” Monitoring occurred within the plant, as well as just outside the fenced-in area of the facility.

Hudson said she did not have any information on those who may have gone to the hospital on their own, complaining of respiratory difficulties or eye irritation. She also said that closing roads in that area, including Interstate 75, and informing the public to turn off their air conditioners and stay inside was also not a decision announced by Wacker, but a safety measure that local authorities, including the EMA, felt necessary to announce.

“At no time did we have the chemical leave the site,” she said. “What I would say is that hydrogen chloride gas does have a very strong odor, and can be very irritating to the respiratory tract. The threshold where you can smell the odor is very low, similar to ammonia, so if you use ammonia in your home, you can smell it. The odor threshold for hydrogen chloride is 10 times lower than the health exposure limits set by the U.S. government.”

She also said the incident that occurred was unrelated to an incident the week before in which five individuals sustained injuries. The chemical that was released in that Aug. 30 incident was identified by Wacker as chlorosilane, similar to trichlorosilane.

“These are two completely different incidents,” Hudson said.

Hudson stated that the plant had an “all-team” meeting Monday morning, which around 500 of the plant’s 650 employees attended.

“We informed them what we do know, and as we receive more information, we will be sharing it with our team members,” Hudson said.

She said though operations at the plant have been suspended, workers will continue to report on their regular shifts.

“This incident was isolated to just a small part of the plant — but we still have our construction projects going on toward our HDK expansion, and we have some other large construction projects, and we still have some utilities and other operations that we support, and we still have some maintenance issues,” Hudson said. “We can take the opportunity to do some additional training which we are doing until we can determine what occurred and correct it.

“It is the top priority for the safety of our employees and the community, and the environment. It is our top priority, and will remain our top priority,” she said.

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