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Kenova plant is one of largest in country that makes polypropylene

May. 12, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

KENOVA -- Automotive dash boards, diapers, caps on milk jugs, haz-mat suits, carpet backing, eyeglass frames -- even medical equipment used in heart surgeries.

All have polypropylene materials produced right in Wayne County and shipped to manufacturers throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States.

It all happens at Braskem America's Neal Plant, a chemical plant located in the industrial strip along the Big Sandy River at Kenova. The plant -- originally founded in 1961 and under the ownership of five companies since then -- was most recently owned by Sunoco until 2010, when Braskem purchased Sunoco's polymer operations throughout the United States.

Philadelphia-based Braskem America is the American arm an international company that was founded 11 years ago in Brazil. It has grown aggressively and now has 36 sites worldwide, mostly in South America but also five sites in the United States and two in Germany.

Under the leadership of Plant Manager Jeff Blatt, Braskem's Neal Plant operates on 100 acres spread with massive towers and piping where gas -- a portion of which is pumped from the Marathon plant about a mile away -- is distilled and converted from raw materials. Propylene is polymerized in large, jacketed pipes into polypropylene and manufactured into pellet form. About seven or eight hopper cars, each filled with 190,000 pounds of small polypropylene pellets, roll off along the Norfolk Southern railway daily.

The Neal Plant is Braskem's "largest producer of polypropylene in the Americas," said Blatt, a Wayne County native who has been at the plant a couple years and in the industry 33 years elsewhere. "Five hundred million pounds are produced here in Kenova annually."

The plant makes 70 different versions of polypropylene -- all of different lengths and properties. It averages about 1.4 million pounds per day through a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year operation, he said.

And it's a business that requires highly skilled technicians to trouble shoot and keep the computer equipment and machinery running as they should.

Two chemical operators at Braskem are Bryan King and Travis Watts, who spend time in a control room keeping their eyes on the numbers -- the pressures, the temperatures and composition of the materials being processed through numerous pieces of machinery. When levels get too high or too low, alerts are sounded and they swing into action.

"I've been doing this about four years, and I know how to run," Watts said. "It's more engineering than I ever wanted to know."

There's always a need for more trouble-shooters and "instrument skilled" workers, Blatt said.

"It's very complicated. A lot of technology is involved and highly skilled folks are needed to run and operate it," Blatt said.

Another regular need at the Braskem Neal Plant is infrastructure investments. The company usually invests about $6 million to $8 million on infrastructure upgrades annually, and this year has gone above that with more than $10 million in upgrades, including a new steam boiler, Blatt said.

The company also has its own waste treatment facility, where water used in the process is treated and sent back into the Big Sandy River.

Respect for the environment is highly emphasized at Braskem, along with respect for the community and respect for employees, referred to as "team members."

It's all part of the company culture, Blatt said, and safety is number one.

The chemical business is all about the reactivity of chemicals, and "the industry can be very hazardous," he said. "Our first and foremost mission every day is to safely operate. ... We start every day, every minute at that level, and then go about the business of chemistry."

That means the fire alarm is tested daily. That means, upon entry, every guest must watch a video about safety measures that must be taken when on company property. That means steel-toe boots, hard hats, coveralls, goggles, gloves and ear plugs -- not just for team members but for anyone roaming the grounds.

As a result, the company is a month and half away from achieving two straight years without any recordable injuries to an employee or a contractor.

"Being two years without an injury is not random, not luck," Blatt said. "It's a rigorous set of standards and practices."

When it comes to the environment, he said the company holds the belief that it's not only a legal but a moral obligation not to cause damage. Thus, it has worked to reduce emissions by 2 percent annually for the past three or four years, he said.

"The more we go, the harder it gets," he said.

That respect extends to their community beyond. To give back, Braskem has supported the purchase of a new ambulance for the Kenova Volunteer Fire Department, donated to area food banks after last summer's Derecho storm, helped fund a playground at Buffalo Elementary and more.

Mark Hall, people and organization leader at the Neal Plant, said Braskem's company culture also stresses respect for team members, of whom there are 110 at Kenova. There's a Braskem belief that when you invest in your employees you get a return on your investment, he said.

"Team members are proud to be working for Braskem, and the company takes an interest in their growth," Hall said.

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