A fire at the Wacker Polysilicon plant in Charleston, TN, early Saturday required help from area emergency responders and added to the list of safety incidents at the chemical plant since it opened just over three years ago.
The fire ended up contained to a small, non-processing area of the facility and no chemicals were involved or released, said Adam Lewis, the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office director of media and public relations.
The fire ended up 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, Lewis said.
“There continues to be no danger to the public,” Lewis said.
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 in a Chattanooga Times Free Press report.
The $2.5 billion plant makes the raw material used in the production of solar power panels.
However, in the short lifespan of the facility, there have been incidents.
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.
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 in the Times Free Press report. ” … 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.”