Cooper: Wacker should learn from VW

Cooper: Wacker should learn from VW

September 16th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Steam clouds billow from the Wacker polysilicon chemical plant in Charleston, Tenn., after an explosion released a hydrogen chemical gas on Sept. 7.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

We would have hoped Wacker Chemie might have learned something from the scandal of its fellow German-headquartered company Volkswagen.

When the automobile manufacturer's emissions-cheating scandal came to life in September 2015, the company said the scandal was "the mistakes of a few people," that its emissions defeat devices may not have been illegal in Europe and that "we didn't lie" to American regulators before the scandal came to light. All were false.

Those statements were made in addition to the fact the self-proclaimed environmentally friendly company sold cars to millions of people knowing they were polluting the atmosphere more than they said they did.

Since then, of course, Volkswagen has tried to make things right with its customers and in its public relations image, but it undoubtedly has lost some customers for good.

The Wacker chemical company in Charleston, Tenn., like Volkswagen's manufacturing plant here in Chattanooga, is a large employer. We appreciate its location here, its contributions to the community and the economic impact it makes.

But we would have wanted Wacker to do what Volkswagen didn't after several recent incidents at its plant— to be upfront about what happened and to not minimize what happened. And where Volkswagen didn't consider its most important clientele, its customers, Wacker didn't consider those people outside the plant who might be affected most, the people who live, work and go to school nearby.

A full-page letter in the Times Free Press earlier this week from Wacker site manager Mary Beth Hudson did apologize, mentioning "a stressful situation" and the "confusion" and "anxiety" the incidents "may have caused." It also stated that "at no time did the chemical leak pose any harm or health concerns to the community."

But it's a fact 13 people were treated in local hospitals, drivers were diverted from Interstate 75, and students were kept inside schools and residents in homes over the incidents.

Hudson on Thursday said the company hadn't reached out to anyone living near the plant and had discussed but hadn't planned any information sessions for the public. She said she understood the actions had led to a loss of public trust.

However, she also said the company would not release the findings of an expected preliminary report to the public and would not release an in-house video of the Sept. 7 explosion to the public.

It's true that the market for chemicals for solar panels — what Wacker manufactures — is not the same as that of automobiles. But where Volkswagen has had to get back into its customers' good graces, Wacker needs to get back into its community's good graces.

Being a better, more accurate, more forthright communicator and putting even more safety measures in place will help do that.

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