As West Virginia’s chemical industry waits to see how the proposed merger between DuPont and Dow Chemical plays out, one company is wasting no time opening up shop in the Kanawha Valley.
Optima Chemical, a Georgia-based company, announced last June that it had bought two units at the old DuPont chemical plant in Belle. Seven months later, the company’s employees are busy bringing those sections of the aging plant back to life.
In December, Optima received preliminary approval from the West Virginia Economic Development Authority for a $2.25 million government-subsidized loan to buy new equipment and to upgrade existing infrastructure at the plant, some of which hasn’t been used for more than five years.
“We’re in the startup mode,” said Doug Cochran, Optima’s vice president of business development, as he sat in one of the unit’s control rooms. “We’re just learning how to run things.”
Optima, a privately-owned company, has been a player in the U.S. chemical industry for more than 20 years, but the acquisition of the units at the Belle plant marks the first time in the company’s history that it has operated outside its facility in Douglas, Georgia.
In the chemical industry, Optima is a type of middleman, contracting with larger companies to create chemical ingredients needed for finished products and working with startups that are looking to take new formulas from the laboratory to the market.
Being privately owned, Cochran said, makes Optima more nimble, allowing the company to quickly meet customer orders without being weighed down by lengthy decision making processes. All together, around than 60 percent of the company’s work, Cochran said, comes from contracting with other companies — known as toll manufacturing in the industry.
That business model has done well for the mid-sized company.
“We’re turning away customers right now because we just don’t have the space, and that’s not a good place to be,” Cochran said. “You can only turn a customer down once or twice before they take their business somewhere else.”
And with the Belle plant’s rail connections, geographic proximity to the Northeast and more-advanced chemical equipment — including specially-coated reactors and a chemical centrifuge — Optima is hoping to expand its footprint and manufacturing capabilities even further.
“The reason we bought this plant is that it’s got a lot of good equipment,” Cochran said, as he stood next to the chemical centrifuge, which will allow the company to separate chemical solids from the solutions it manufactures.
“This is the type of thing — from Optima’s standpoint, that is really high value,” said John Sawyer, Optima’s new plant manager.
But before Optima can take advantage of that value, the company needs to make some upgrades to the former DuPont units, both of which were built in the middle of the twentieth century.
Both manufacturing units have newer chemical reactors, capable of producing 2,000 to 4,000 gallon batches of chemicals, but at least one of the units has not been activated since 2010, when Carl Fish, a DuPont employee, died after being sprayed in the face with phosgene, a deadly chemical agent.
Cochran said that all of the equipment for phosgene manufacturing had already been removed from the site and that Optima would not be manufacturing the chemical, which was used as weapon during World War I, in the future.
Last week, company employees were hard at work upgrading electrical equipment in that three story facility — known as the Small Lots Manufacturing Unit. Cochran said the company began that work in late October and that additional improvements will continue to be made at the plant as the company grows.
As production expands, investment and employment at the Belle plant is expected to increase too. Cochran said employment at the two Belle units could increase from around 15 employees to as many as 30 depending on production.
“As we grow our business, we’ll add equipment and personnel to support it,” he said.
With the help of the $2.25 million low-interest loan, Cochran said the company could add newer filtration devices, chemical distillation equipment and more modern heat transferring technology in order to produce a wider variety of chemicals and to make the company more competitive.
In a likely oversimplified explanation, Cochran said chemical manufacturing wasn’t that much different than cooking.
In order to make certain recipes, he said, you need different equipment. Some dishes require constant stirring. Other recipes call for ingredients to be blended in multiple sauce pans. And some need to be heavily boiled.
Optima’s production of a variety of specialty chemicals, however, may require the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to adapt quickly as well, Cochran said.
Company employees have already met with DEP staff in recent months in order to obtain the correct permits for their work at the site. But unlike other companies DEP has worked with in the past, Cochran said Optima may present different challenges for the environmental regulators.
With Optima’s business model requiring the manufacturer to switch from one chemical to another more often than a company like DuPont or Chemours, he said it may require DEP to speed up its approval processes for the various chemicals compounds that will need to be permitted.
“They are used to companies that move slower, that produce one type of chemical for years or decades,” he said. “We’re a little different animal than what they are used to.”
Reach Andrew Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814, or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.