Latest fire adds to growing list of incidents at Wacker's Charleston, Tennessee, chemical plant

Latest fire adds to growing list of incidents at Wacker's Charleston, Tennessee, chemical plant

May 6th, 2019 by Mark Pace in Local Regional News

The Wacker polysilicon plant is seen on Monday, May 6, 2019 in Charleston, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

A fire at the Wacker Polysilicon plant early Saturday morning required help from area emergency responders and added to the list of safety incidents at the chemical plant since it opened in Charleston, Tennessee in 2016.

The fire was contained to a small, non-processing area of the facility. No chemicals were involved or released, according to Adam Lewis, the Bradley County Sheriff's Office director of media and public relations. It was reported at 1:20 a.m. on the fourth floor of the wastewater treatment building inside the facility. A cloud of smoke and water vapor were present, but air quality tests showed no chemical residue in the air, according to Lewis.

"There continues to be no danger to the public," Lewis said in a news release.

Wacker has its own fire department but needed assistance reaching the fire on an upper level of the facility. Wacker Fire, Cleveland City Fire, Bradley County Fire and Rescue and the Bradley County Sheriff's Office responded. Polk County Fire and Rescue was on standby.

"We pride ourselves on Wacker's commitment to safety. Since 2016, Wacker-Charleston's safety record has always been much lower than the average for other manufacturing sites, per published OSHA statistics," according to a statement from company communications coordinator Lisa Mantooth.

The Wacker polysilicon plant is seen on Monday, May 6, 2019 in Charleston, Tenn.

The Wacker polysilicon plant is seen on Monday,...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

The $2.5 billion plant makes the raw material used in the production of solar power panels.

An explosion at the plant in September 2017 sent 1,784 pounds of hydrochloric acid into the air and was caused by a "sudden and unavoidable failure of process equipment," according to an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The incident resulted in a plant worker, a firefighter, four deputies and seven local residents being treated at local hospitals. It shut down Interstate 75 and caused nearby schools to go on lockdown. Emergency personnel drove around Charleston using loudspeakers to warn residents of the emergency, urging them to stay inside and turn off their air conditioning units. There was video of the explosion, but the company declined to release it to the public. Wacker's response to the incident led public leaders to question the transparency and integrity of company officials as they struggled internally and publicly to get the company to be more forthright.

The plant halted operations for about eight months to conduct repairs and determine the cause.

The incidents add to a growing list of violations and safety concerns for the German company's Charleston facility.

  • A Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into the 2017 explosion determined there were five serious violations and two "other-than-serious" violations that resulted in more than $25,000 in fines.
  • A separate TOSHA investigation into an unrelated chemical spill that sent five workers to area hospitals a week before the explosion found two serious violations resulting in more than $20,000 in fines.
  • An inspection in March 2016 cited a violation of regulations related to control of hazardous energy, and the company paid a $3,500 fine that September.
  • In August 2016, violations related to process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals and respiratory protection cost the company $4,000.
  • In October 2016, a faulty gasket in a distillation device released a small cloud of chemicals, but no one was injured and plant workers repaired the gasket, according to Times Free Press archives.

"Here's the thing, they're a chemical plant," said Bradley County Emergency Management Agency Director Troy Spence, who was previously critical of the company. " ... Plants, and it doesn't matter if they're a chemical plant or whatever, they have incidents at their facility all the time and usually handle it internally. [Wacker] just couldn't [during Saturday's fire] because of the location. It was just too high for them."

Spence said Saturday's fire wasn't a big deal and was handled well by the company and responding agencies.

Wacker hosted a "Good Neighbor Night" with other Charleston and Calhoun-based manufacturers at Charleston Elementary in the fall of 2018 to build better relationships with the public. The meeting came after a request from Bradley County leaders.

Spence and Bradley County Commissioner Thomas Crye, who represents Charleston, applauded the company's improvements and its response to Saturday's fire.

"I'm very impressed with the reaction of Wacker to the local government agencies as compared to the initial time," Crye said. "We've gone through a learning process, as most do, and I see it as a tremendous improvement. I don't see a breakdown or any questionable events that took place."

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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