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."

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