Charleston and Bradley County got the “all clear” late Thursday evening seven hours after an afternoon explosion at the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant released a chemical vapor cloud …
Charleston and Bradley County got the “all clear” late Thursday evening seven hours after an afternoon explosion at the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant released a chemical vapor cloud over the immediate area.
Throughout the early evening, roads around the plant were closed, opened and closed again before being reopened late Thursday night.
That same pattern played out for advisories which recommended “staying in place” and to refrain from the use of air conditioners.
Director of Schools Dr. Linda Cash announced around 10 p.m. that Bradley County Schools, which has Walker Valley High and Charleston Elementary in the area closest to Wacker, would be closed today as a precautionary measure.
The Walker Valley football team is playing an away game tonight, so the school closings will not affect that schedule.
Cleveland City Schools will be open for business as usual.
Mary Beth Hudson, Wacker vice president and Charleston plant site manager, and Bradley County Emergency Management Director Troy Spence held a news conference concerning the situation just before 11 o’clock Thursday night.
The chemical involved was a low concentated form of chlorosilane which produces hydrogen chloride when mixed with water, but Hudson said air monitoring at the site was showing the concentration at the perimeter of the site was “far below any kind of health hazard.”
“It was almost untraceable,” Spence added.
He said mobile air monitors were being driven around to check for readings in the area.
“Right now, they’re not picking anything up off-site at all,” Spence said.
Hudson did add that Wacker would voluntarily report to all agencies who would normally be involved in any current and subsequent investigation.
“Our primary concern is with our employees’, the community’s and the responders’ safety,” Hudson said. “We have taken every precaution possible to ensure that safety.”
She said the explosion, caused by “equipment failure,” occurred around 3:40 p.m. Thursday.
“The explosion caused some of the piping in the plant to have a leak of some chemcals and the immediate response from our onsite emergency response team contained the incident,” Hudson said.
“We immediately contacted Bradley County EMS to support us,” she said. “Part of the response to control the vapor is to spray it with water. So, that in itself creates a large vapor cloud that is very visible.”
Hudson said Wacker worked with county responders to “shelter” the site and also recommended closing the nearby roads “to make sure everyone would remain safe.”
She said the company is still in the process of ensuring everything is still contained.
Hudson thanked the support of area agencies “for helping to keep this from becoming a larger incident.”
Reportedly, two Wacker employees were transported by EMS to the hospital.
Spence said one was for a form of heat exhaustion and the other was from a heart-related issue. According to a press release from Wacker, the employee who suffered heat exhaustion was one of the in-house firefighters, and that employee was treated and released.
Their conditions were not discussed with Spence saying that was “a hospital matter.”
Hudson said plant operations were immediately shut down and investigations are being conducted “to ensure everything is safe before we think about resuming operations.”
She said employees would be reporting to work on Friday “to help with that assessment.”
Hudson said the chemical leak was “completely unrelated” to a previous leak on Aug. 30. Though Wacker has not presently been cited for that incident, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA), did cite the local industry in 2016 for five violations (one of which was dismissed), and the company paid fines on two of those violations. The largest fine ($4,000) was for “process safety management of highly hazardous materials,” while the other fine ($2,450), was for “respiratory protection.” Both citations were from Aug. 8, 2016.
“I was at both (recent) incidents and they are nothing alike,” Spence said of the most recent incidents.
“Chief Shawn Fairbanks and I were on the scene almost the entire time and some are still there reponding to the incident,” he said, noting there are several mutual aid agreements with surrounding counties “and their specific specialties.”
“The reason I felt like it was really important to come and explain these course changes is we originally felt like we had a really good handle on the whole situation until the wind changed,” Spence said. “It was not a second leak [that made the decision to renew the alerts].”
He explained the reasons the advisories went back into effect was because teams were attempting to tamper the vapor cloud “through the roof of a building.”
“When the wind changed, it did not allow us to have access to take care of the vapor, so we had to bring in additional equipment and move some of the equipment on the scene to take care of this vapor cloud,” Spence said.
As that procedure was taking place, Spence said “more product in the form of a vapor cloud was leaving the site.”
“We wanted to make sure we told the public what was going on so they could take precautions to protect themselves,” he said.
Spence said it was his understanding there were seven residents who drove themselves to the hospital complaining of irritants.
“The only ones transported by EMS were the two who were on the scene,” he said.
Spence thanked the responders from other counties who came to assist.
“I would like to thank Wacker for being open with us,” he said. “We were invited into their emergency center and watched the whole incident through the security cameras. We were extremely well-informed and we feel like they are doing the appropriate things.”
Spence said another concern was caused by the involved structure being unsound.
“We felt like we didn’t want to try to make entry into it to do anything else,” he said. “This product is going to take care of itself. And, we wanted to take care of the vapor cloud to protect the public.”
Spence thanked the public for heeding the cautionary alerts.
“The decisions were made every time with the plant. We were in constant communication with them on what they felt was safe and we felt it was safe the entire time for the public,” he said. “The issue was, ‘Could it irritate the public?’ We lessened that as much as we could by telling them to stay out of the area.”
Hudson said the message to Wacker employees is that “through their actions and trained response we were able to contain the release and minimize the impact.”
“So the message to them is, “Thank you very much,’” she said.
Hudson said Wacker has learned they can rely on the county and state agencies “to help support us when we have an incident.”
“We tell our neighbors we are a very safe operaton,” Hudson said. “Safety is our primary concern. A lot of the actions we have taken that have been visible to the community have been to safeguard the community and, in some ways, that may seem scary. But in essence, it’s actually precautions to make sure everyone is safe and sound.”
“We have had several groups which have come to the site and we have shown them what our processes are, what our safety programs are, what our training programs are and we will continue those exercises to reassure the community as well as our employees,” she said.
Wacker’s Director of Corporate Communications and Compliance Bill Toth said that the company wanted to thank the Bradley County Emergency Management Agency, along with area law enforcement, fire companies and state agencies, “for their immediate response and assistance.”
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