December 06, 2021

HoltraChem to close N.C. plant > Firm fined after employees exposed to excessive mercury vapors

HoltraChem Manufacturing Co., which is in the process of mothballing its plant in Orrington, announced Wednesday that it is closing its facility in North Carolina.

That plant, which was the target of one of North Carolina’s largest health and safety fines, will close next month.

Petrochemical manufacturer HoltraChem announced Wednesday that low profits have forced it to close its Riegelwood plant.

It gave similar reasons, plus the increasing costs of environmental regulation, when it announced last month that the Orrington plant would be mothballed while a buyer is sought.

The 70 employees of the Orrington plant will work throughout the mothballing process, which is expected to last until late October. Company officials said they would seek a buyer for about three months before deciding whether to shut the facility permanently.

Company officials informed the 87 Riegelwood employees on Wednesday that the plant would close Oct. 13, said Steve Conner, local president of the International Chemicals Workers Union. Workers will stay on until Nov. 20 removing chemicals from the facility, which manufactures chlorine and caustic soda.

In December 1999, the North Carolina Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined HoltraChem $873,030 after inspectors discovered workers had been exposed to mercury vapor levels exceeding federal limits.

Mercury exposure can cause a variety of ailments, including kidney damage, nerve damage and mental problems.

Plant manager Steve Guidry said the fine has nothing to do with the closing.

“We have a very large investment in a business that is not making money, and the losses do not seem reversible,” he said. “If the plant was bigger or the price was higher, we might have been profitable.”

Except for a few small areas, Conner said the plant has completely removed the mercury from the facility and no longer uses mercury in its manufacturing.

Environmentalists in Maine have long called upon the HoltraChem facility here to switch to a mercury-free process, but company officials said such a conversion would be too costly.

As part of its stand-down, the company is trying to dispose of more than 260,000 pounds of mercury. It wants to sell the mercury, but state environmental officials are pressuring the company instead to “retire” the mercury to ensure that it is not used again, and therefore, doesn’t enter the air as mercury pollution.

The Maine plant has also been assessed fines over the years for violating state environmental laws. During a 13-month period in 1997 and 1998, there were seven leaks and spills at the plant on the banks of the Penobscot River.

With the closing of the two plants, the company will, in effect, be out of business.

“We will continue to exist in some form, but we won’t have any business,” Guidry said.

The Riegelwood plant’s neighbor, International Paper, has been a major customer since it opened in 1963, buying $2 million in chemicals last year.

While company officials expected to close the Maine plant, the decision to close the Riegelwood operation came as a surprise. The company had recently rebuilt more than 80 percent of the plant, Conners said, with the new equipment coming on line in November 1999.

“We’ve been through a pretty exhaustive search for a buyer,” Guidry said. “We just couldn’t get an offer to justify continuing at this site.”

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