Chemical Industry Disputes Y2K Report

The vast majority of chemical plants in America are likely to continue normal operations when 1999 ends and 2000 begins, according to industry sources who say their thorough preparation for the New Year makes shutting down unnecessary.

Although some plants may suspend operations during the holiday, the decision will be related to inventory, staffing and market considerations more than to fears of Y2K computer glitches, said Joe Mayhew of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA). "I'm not aware of any plants anywhere closing down solely because of safety concerns for Y2K," he added.

Mayhew, like other industry spokespersons, disputed recent press accounts that several plants in West Virginia will temporarily suspend operations at the end of the year because of Y2K fears.

For example, Jim Vitaki, a spokesperson for Ashland Specialty Co., played down the role of Y2K fears in determining his company's year-end operations. "Because it is a holiday weekend, we typically don't have as much going on as we would at other times of the year," Vitaki said.

Because most of Ashland's sales are to the specialty market, the majority of its plants use the batch process, which entails starting and stopping the facility a few days at a time. Thus, although all the company's batch operations will suspend operations for the New Year, Vitaki maintained it has little to do with the Y2K problem.

The company's two plants that use continuous-process operations will be taken off line briefly before midnight Dec. 31 and will be brought back on line shortly afterward. Vitaki firmly denied that Y2K fears are the primary factors behind this decision.

"There is not any one particular concern," he said. "If you have that ability [to shut down], why take a chance?"

Ashland worked on being Y2K compliant for years and operates a 24-hour emergency command center that can be reached by dialing an 800 number. "We have what we feel is a very thorough preparation and response team ready," Vitaki said.

Union Carbide has more continuous-process plants, but there are no plans to shut down any of them for Y2K considerations, said Sean Clancy, the company's director of corporate communications.

"I think we have prepared," Clancy said, "and that is why we feel some confidence that we can continue operations." Union Carbide started to prepare for Y2K two years ago, and he cited the company's comprehensive remediation program as an additional safety factor.

If Union Carbide plants are shut down for the New Year, it will be because of market, inventory or maintenance reasons, Clancy asserted. Even the batch plants will carry on, he said, though some may be "hot-idled." This means to continue the production process without turning out product.

Clancy conceded that Y2K concerns might be one factor among many that would lead to hot-idling these plants. When asked to specify what specific Y2K concerns might lead to an operations interruption, he said that there are a number of Y2K considerations, most of them external to the plant.

According to a survey conducted by CMA, all respondents have indicated they will be Y2K-ready before the end of the year. Of the association's 191 members, 169 have responded to the survey, Mayhew said. "I think our companies are prepared," he said. "I'd be very surprised if there were any Y2K safety problems among our member companies."

Asked about smaller companies that tend not to belong to CMA, Mayhew conceded that they may have done less preparation, but noted that smaller companies are less dependent upon computers because they are less likely to be continuous processors. Like Ashland Specialty, most of the smaller companies close for the holiday anyway, Mayhew said.

Jerry Poje of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board agreed that larger U.S. chemical manufacturing companies generally have done a good job of preparing for 2000, but he warned of dangers elsewhere in the chemical industry.

"We certainly have significant concerns about the Y2K status of small- and mid-sized companies handling chemicals, as well as the manufacturers," Poje said. He also painted a picture of the Y2K situation confronting big firms that differ slightly from the one presented by industry spokespersons.

"Everybody I've talked to in the large manufacturing sector is grappling with the unprecedented problem of multiple Y2K failures, both internal and external, that present unique risks to their business continuity, as well as to health and safety," Poje said.

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