Confronting Challenges, Preparing for the Future

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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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