Confronting Challenges, Preparing for the Future

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Operating a chemical plant today is no simple task. Plant managers must tackle everything from environmental regulations to security concerns to processing glitches.

During a recent round of chemical plant tours in Geismar, La., and Virginia's Hampton Roads area, Chemical Processing had the opportunity to speak with plant managers about their greatest challenges, most noteworthy achievements and the measures they are taking to ensure future success.

Maximizing site operations

Shell Chemical LP's (Shell Chemicals) Geismar, La., facility is a massive complex located close to the Mississippi River and rail transportation. Plant structures cover approximately 400 acres of the 800-acre Shell site, which is nestled amid a sea of other chemical and petrochemical plants.

To allow for expansion, Shell acquired the remaining 102 acres of the historically significant Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation in 1992, including the magnificent plantation great house.

According to Fran Keeth, Shell Chemicals president and CEO, Shell Chemicals values its people over all of its other assets. And that philosophy apparently has paid off in company loyalty. In fact, many Geismar Plant employees currently are donating their spare time and talents to preserve the plantation house.

Site maximization is one of Shell Chemicals' main focuses, and the Geismar facility is no exception. The site recently completed a major expansion project to boost linear alpha olefin (LAO) and alcohol capacities. The expansion, said Shell, cements the company's position as "the number one global producers" of LAO and detergent intermediates.

Safety was a major challenge during the project, noted Leo R. Broering. As many as 2,000 contract workers were on-site at any of the various project stages, he said, and the plant wanted to achieve excellence in safety and environmental performance.

To ensure the safest possible project, the plant conducted workshops to solicit safety commitments from construction contractor management, said Broering. "We stressed safety as a value, with the approach being one of caring about people and listening to people's safety thoughts everyday. Safety performance during the construction was very good," he added, "with an OSHA rate of about 0.35 and no lost-time accidents."

Tie-ins and integration also posed some challenges, said Broering. "By design, the new units were closely integrated with similar existing units for the purposes of reducing initial capital outlay," he noted, "as well as positioning us for long-term efficiency. But this meant we had to complete over 500 process and utility tie-ins into operating units."

To accomplish the tie-ins, the plant set up "tie-in teams" made up of construction and operating plant personnel. Team planning and coordination efforts, said Broering, allowed the tie-ins to be accomplished without incident.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, also complicated the project, said Broering. "Following the events of that day, we increased gate security, worked to reduce vehicles coming on-site [and] initiated more-thorough inspections," he said. "But it resulted in a lot of very tense weeks and months following that tragedy."

The project was a smashing success, and the plant now is working to optimize site operations. Leading the pack of current plant concerns are environmental requirements, maintained Broering. "New regulations continue to require capital investments with low returns," he emphasized, "and because the ongoing reporting and certification requirements consume so many technical resources, this seems to keep us from other opportunities such as process or variable cost improvements."

Broering said the plant is taking steps to meet these challenges. For example, it is improving its processes and tools for environmental performance data collection. Looking forward, Broering would like to see Shell Chemicals develop biobased and other alternatives to some of the products the plant currently produces. The plant also must find ways to improve productivity, he stressed.

"Over time, we have to continue to seek ways to make more pounds per employee, to reduce the cost of production to match the industry trend of 3 to 6 percent per year of productivity improvement," he said. "We hope to make some selective investments in technology to help our productivity, but we also think there's opportunity in implementing global processes ," basically, learning and standardizing on the best company practices across the globe.

"Finally," said Broering, "we have to keep working with local communities and other stakeholders to maintain our ability to operate and grow."

Improving product performance

Situated on 10 acres of an approximately 60-acre tract in the northern section of Chesapeake, Va. ," close to a massive warm water port and easily accessible rail transportation ," the Nova Chemicals Chesapeake Site manufactures polystyrene and high-performance styrenics that work their way into a wide variety of end products. The nearly 30-year-old plant has undergone three capacity expansions and currently employs more than 200 people.

The facility takes its commitments to the community and environmental excellence very seriously. According to Pete Graham, Chesapeake Site leader, the plant has more than once been honored with the Virginia Governor's Environmental Excellence Award and has received numerous other environmental accolades.

The facility long has played an active role in the Elizabeth River Project ," a project that aims to restore one of the most economically crucial, but environmentally degraded rivers in the nation through the collaborative efforts of industry, universities, municipalities and environmental groups. In addition, said Graham, plant employees take part in numerous voluntary activities in the community, demonstrating a "sense of responsibility for others who aren't doing as well."

The Chesapeake Site's challenges run the gamut from product optimization to process control to environmental considerations.

Nova Chemicals itself has grown, in part, through acquisitions, noted Graham. Now the company is looking for ways to rejuvenate its styrenics business by improving product performance and margins.

Although the company has an in-house group dedicated to lead advanced process control, this particular area also remains a challenge for the site. The challenge lies in producing "high-quality products with less variability," maintained Graham. When it comes to advanced process control, he added, "I don't know anyone in our industry who's going it alone. I think everyone looks to consultants to help move their programs forward effectively."

To help ensure a healthy future, Nova Chemicals will continue to emphasize research and development (R&D), said Philip Jacobs, the Chesapeake Site's director of research, styrenics technology. Currently, 10 percent of its polyethylene and styrenics business employees are employed in the R&D area. The site itself will be looking to enhance specific products, he said, hoping to improve flame retardants, to accomplish the color-matching of our clear styrenics polymers at a lower cost, to boost the heat resistance of microwavable packaging and more.

To further its progress in the environmental area, said Graham, the Chesapeake Site expects all of its employees to find ways to eliminate waste. The site also strives to use "greener" raw materials, and now produces pre-colored polystyrene through a more "environmentally friendly" method. In addition, it is upgrading its loss-in-weight feeders to reduce waste.

According to Jacobs, the Chesapeake Site boasts both a site group and a corporate group that work with suppliers and other stakeholders on product stewardship issues. Nova has some "pretty sophisticated customers," emphasized Jacobs, who want to understand product-related cradle-to-grave concerns.

On the security side, the site has been working in close collaboration with local law officials, the state and the federal government to decrease its vulnerability to threats. However, noted Graham, the plant already had relatively strong security measures in place before September 11. Nova Chemicals has been "very heavily involved" in the development of the American Chemistry Council's Responsible Care Security Code, he added.

One challenge the Chesapeake Site probably will not face during the next few years is a labor shortage. Each year, numerous highly trained personnel exit the military, and many of them remain in the Hampton Roads area. "We're able to access pretty highly skilled folk," said Graham. "We're more than pleased with the preparedness of the workforce here ," with its skill set and wonderful work ethic," he added.

Meeting customer needs

The Ciba Specialty Chemicals Suffolk, Va., facility manufactures water treatment, pulp and paper, oil reclamation and coatings chemicals, as well as sizings and thickeners. Built in 1983, the plant was acquired by Ciba in 1998 and has approximately 300 on-site and 400 total employees. It is Ciba's NAFTA headquarters for the company's water treatment and paper business units.

Located on a beautiful 225-acre site that includes portions of a lake, the facility has undergone several major expansion projects during its lifetime. Future expansions also are anticipated, according to Craig Romanelli, Suffolk site manager, but most of the land will remain in its natural state.

The Suffolk facility is particularly proud of its safety and environmental performance, said Romanelli. In 2001, the site achieved OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) STAR status for its outstanding safety and health achievements.

The site also partnered with the local landfill and reclamation facility to reuse methane gas, noted Romanelli. And it boasts a very active community advisory panel (CAP). The plant makes sure CAP members know and understand plant activities, and it surveys the CAP regularly to evaluate plant perception and attain the information needed to effect continuous improvements. It also believes in a partnership approach to its relationships with regulatory agencies, he stressed, including the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Of course, no chemical facility is problem-free, and Ciba's Suffolk facility is no exception. The plant struggles to improve productivity and automation, said Romanelli. To increase productivity, the site continuously evaluates new equipment, he said, as well as alternative ways to manufacture its products ," looking at everything from greener processes to pump and valve optimization.

The Suffolk plant is somewhat unique in that its newest portions boast state-of-the-art automation systems, while its oldest portions are not automated at all. "It will be quite a challenge to update automation and control" within the plant, Romanelli conceded.

As for security, the plant has implemented stricter access policies and other security measures, and has completed the vulnerability assessment mandated by Responsible Care. The site has benefited from security checks performed, as a favor, by military security experts in the area, added Romanelli.

Looking to the future, the site and Ciba as a whole will be focused on new molecule R&D, said Romanelli, as well as on the delivery of these new molecules to treatment processes. At Ciba, "R&D is driven very much by customer needs," he explained.

Right now, customers within the industrial and municipal wastewater treatment industries are looking at ways to reclaim water more efficiently and to increase water reuse, Romanelli says. And in the pulp and paper area, customers want chemicals that work more efficiently.

Like its Hampton Roads Nova neighbor, the Ciba Suffolk facility finds itself with no shortage of skilled workers. "A key component to business growth is innovation," noted Romanelli, "and finding good chemists and engineers [to accomplish that innovation] is a real advantage of the area." The site also partners with local community colleges for operator training purposes, he added.

This piece is the first in a series of occasional articles that aim to provide a realistic portrayal
 of current chemical plant operations.

 

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