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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / The plume from the Wacker polysilicon chemical plant after an explosion released a hydrogen chemical gas on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in Charleston, Tenn.
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It could be several months before investigations into a chemical explosion at the Wacker chemical plant in Charleston, Tenn., are completed, and public officials believe the company will continue withholding information from the public in the meantime.

"The bad part that we're dealing with is outside the gates at Wacker and the public perception of Wacker. It could be healed if Wacker would come forward and honestly talk to the public," acting Bradley County Fire & Rescue Chief Shawn Fairbanks said. "Which they've indicated they have no intentions of doing."

Site manager Mary Beth Hudson has spoken at length with the media but said the company doesn't know any more than the public. She continues to assure the public that everyone is safe and the company is being fully transparent.

Area residents aren't so sure. They remain concerned about a lack of information and what they perceive as false information being spread by the company, Charleston resident Jeremy Colloms said.

"We don't know when the alarms go off if there's a nuclear explosion, if it's the Armageddon or if it's something where [Wacker's] saying 'Well, we've contained it on site,'" Colloms said. "People are frustrated and concerned, and I think rightly so. The community would like to know, how dangerous is the most dangerous possible explosion? What could possibly happen?"

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A group of protestors went to the plant Friday morning upset about the entire ordeal. Jackson Spaldings, a public relations firm representing Wacker, provided a statement.

"We are aware of some demonstrators outside our Charleston, TN plant," it read. "They have been provided a safe place to voice their opinions, and we respect their right to do so. At Wacker, we remain focused on the investigation of last week's incident."

The Sept. 7 explosion is being investigated by the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a third party hired by Wacker. A separate chemical release Aug. 30 that left five workers with chemical burns is also being investigated.

"It's too early to say right now, but I expect it will take some time," Hudson, who is also the company's vice president, said of the investigation.

Officials may choose to combine investigations of the incidents in one report, said Chris Cannon, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

A typical TOSHA investigation takes eight to 10 weeks, and preliminary information is not released to the public until the investigation is complete and a report issued.

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TDEC is evaluating Wacker's on-site and off-site air monitoring data and has asked Wacker to provide an incident report, according to communications director Eric Ward. Department officials do not have an exact time frame of when they expect to finish their investigation.

"We will take the time necessary to ensure we have a complete understanding of what happened and how it may have impacted the environment and public health," Ward wrote in an email to the Times Free Press.

Wacker will get information from third-party investigators as soon as this week but will not share that information with the public, Hudson said. The community will have to wait until the investigations are completed.

Local agencies have struggled internally and publicly with Wacker to get the company to be more forthright with the public, according to local officials. Wacker is not the only chemical company in the area, and the others are more helpful and more willing to work in collaboration with local agencies to keep everyone informed about issues, Fairbanks said.

"People in Bradley County are upset because they feel like Wacker is lying to them," he said. "We have other chemical plants in this town, and we have a good working relationship with them. It's to the point where Wacker isn't even calling us to tell us they're having incidents."

Fairbanks has been involved in several meetings with Wacker and other public officials. He said the meetings with Wacker have been pleasant, and that county officials are on good terms with Wacker's fire department, something Hudson confirmed. However, Fairbanks and Bradley County Emergency Management Agency Director Troy Spence believe the company has been unable to provide meaningful, reliable answers to the general public.

"I don't disagree that the public deserves to know, but I feel like that's going to have to come from the plant," Spence said. " I know the public is getting the tight-lipped thing [from Wacker], and I can't control that. I think they've damaged their credibility."

Concern rose again Sept. 12 when sirens once again blared, putting Charleston residents on edge. Wacker failed to immediately alert anyone outside the plant to the situation, Fairbanks said.

Wacker employees again were ordered to shelter in place, and local schools were on stand-by, monitoring the situation. Little information about the incident has been released. Wacker again assured the public it was safe and released a statement that read "a slight elevation of residual chemicals stemming from the September 7 incident" caused the alarm.

Bradley County Fire & Rescue tried to contact Wacker to find out what was happening but were unable to reach the company, Fairbanks said. Responders drove out to the scene but were told they were not needed and left, he said. The chemical company has its own fire department and safety measures in place to handle such situations.

Wacker has continued to apologize for causing any anxiety to the community and its own workers.

Records show the three latest incidents are part of a growing list of problems at the chemical plant, which opened in 2016.

The current incidents are the third and fourth TOSHA has investigated in less than two years.

Wacker was cited and fined twice for having dangerous working conditions, violations that were categorized as "serious." The Times Free Press obtained copies of the reports. In October, a faulty gasket in a distillation device released a small cloud of chemicals. No one was injured.

Incidents at the plant are "absolutely" not becoming a trend, Hudson said.

"Those events from the startup and last week's event were completely unrelated," she said. "Those were all unrelated incidents."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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