The major economic project in Bradley County hit the Banner’s front pages again in 2013 with a mixed bag of uncertainty, lawsuits and progress.
It was that roller coaster of news — and a six-month lack of it — that led the Cleveland Daily Banner news staff to once again pick Wacker Polysilicon North America as its top story of the year.
Dr. Konrad Bachhuber, vice president and site manager for Wacker, said in an email communication to the Cleveland Daily Banner on Monday that the project is “on track.”
“This will be one of the most modern polysilicon manufacturing facilities in the world,” Bachhuber said. “On a long-term and global basis, the demand for polysilicon is growing significantly. Our Tennessee plant — a major part of Wacker’s global growth strategy — will play an important role in meeting this demand.”
“Significant progress has been made toward the completion of this project,” adds Bachhuber. “We are on track.”
At the beginning of 2013, Wacker had increased its local investment to $1.8 billion, moved 4 million cubic yard of dirt and begun construction on three of the facility’s largest planned buildings.
The company is working under a performance agreement with local governments that require Wacker to maintain at least an $800 million capital investment and 400 full-time employes by Dec. 31, 2017.
Wacker is reporting the investment is now at $2 billion, 5.5 million work-hours have been completed as of last month and on average, there are currently more than 1,000 people working at the site.
Almost half of the 550 acres are being used and 3.8 million cubic yards of soil have been moved, representing 237,500 truckloads.
There have been 17,000 tons of steel installed and 145,000 cubic yards of concrete have been poured.
While the news looks positive now, the Wacker story for 2013 started with a cloudy outlook, when layoffs at Hemlock Semiconductor in Clarksville were announced even as it was completing construction of a $1.2 billion plant.
Hemlock said it was due to a softening of the market for polysilicon because of the influx of Chinese-made products.
Hemlock’s actions led to concerns the same market situations could doom or diminish the Charleston plant.
“Wacker announced this past October  to reschedule start of operations at our Charleston plant to mid-2015,” said William Toth, Wacker Chemical Corp. manager of Corporate Communications.
“We are aligning our staffing to correspond with the startup of production, and we are not planning any layoffs due to the rescheduled timing.”
Doug Berry, vice president of Economic Development for the local Chamber of Commerce, saw the comparison of the two companies in a different perspective.
“What you have is a broader global perspective in the Hemlock operational perspective and Wacker saying they are establishing themselves for the growing and emerging U.S. market,” Berry said.
In February, 44 chemical lab technicians and senior chemical operators became the second class of graduates from an institute Wacker established at Chattanooga State Community College.
Those graduates were reported at the time to be remaining in the county until this year, when they leave for six months of training in Germany. That story also reconfirmed the plant’s mid-2015 start date.
On March 12, Wacker maintained construction was continuing and the 2015 opening date was unchanged.
Five structures measuring more than 200 feet tall had traveled along Interstate 75 to the site in 2012, and are beginning to dominate the landscape.
“This is a very visible stride in our progress: the first major milestone of 2013. We are excited to see this equipment now in its permanent place,” said Dr. Martin Richtberg, vice president of engineering and head of the Wacker Polysilicon construction project.
That statement came two days after the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Division of Occupational Safety and Health determined inadequate training and failure by a contractor on-site to make sure a formwork system could support weight loads led to the deaths of two workers in 2012.
Baker Concrete Construction Co. Inc. was fined a total of $10,800 for the violations regarding training on the MEVA KLK 230 scaffolding, MEVA Imperial wall-form system and the “improperly fabricated, erected, supported, braced” formwork, according to the report.
A few days later, Wacker’s financial reports said investments in the Charleston plant were expected to climb 10 percent to around $2 billion and increase the site’s total capacity at least 10 percent, to more than 20,000 metric tons per year.
According to the financial statement, “Wacker made good progress with constructing its new polysilicon site at Charleston. Numerous buildings are ready or are about to be completed. Amid the excess capacities currently facing polysilicon, however, Wacker decided last fall to slow down the pace of this project. Charleston’s production start-up is now planned for mid-2015. With this decision, the chemical group is aligning capacity growth with market demand and, at the same time, easing the burden on 2013’s cash flow.”
After that, the news flow went dark until September.
It was then 10 graduates of the Wacker Institute filled lawsuits for breach of employment contracts with the company.
They asked for damages equal to the amount of salary and the value of the benefits Wacker would have paid them from April 1 until the case is settled or Wacker puts them to work.
Wacker issued a statement: “Although we were able to preserve the jobs of our employees, we were unable to begin employment of the students at the present time. Nonetheless, we remain confident that the skills and education these students gained during their advanced technical training at Chattanooga State Community College will be of future value and can benefit them greatly, whether they ultimately join the Wacker Team, or whether their careers take them elsewhere.”
But, the graduates claimed the company led them on by saying the new facility would open in January 2013, and that all of the polysilicon manufactured in the first two years of operation was already sold.
They also claimed they were promised careers with opportunities for advancement as chemical or lead operators with a starting annual salary of approximately $50,000, full benefits and $3,000 starting April 1.
Wacker’s legal team of J. Bartlett Quinn, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel P.C., stated numerous grounds justifying the dismissal of each of the plaintiff’s 10 causes of action.
“The core of Defendants’ Motion is simple: Wacker Polysilicon extended the plaintiff a conditional offer of at-will employment at its Charleston, Tennessee facility, which is under construction,” the motion stated.
“The offer indicated a scheduled start date of April 1, 2013. Because of circumstances over which Defendants’ had no control, Wacker Polysilicon delayed opening its Charleston facility and deferred the plaintiff’s start date to coincide with the facility’s startup. Can the plaintiff recover from Defendants because of the deferred start date? The answer to this question is ‘no.’”
Summonses from the plaintiffs to Wacker were served Dec. 13 and require a response to the complaints within 21 days after receipt.
A conference to schedule a hearing in U.S. District Court is now set scheduled for March 28.
Despite the bumps in the road and periods of quiet, Berry confirmed the recent statements of the company saying the 2015 date has not changed.
“The project is proceeding as outlined to the media and the community,” Berry said in an interview last week. “They have not adjusted the project in any way other than to slow the construction time frame. The project has actually gained in investment since they announced the construction slowdown.”
Berry said the main reason for the slowdown was to “match the delivery of their new product here in America with projected market needs.”