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Looking beyond production

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The impact of the chemical process industries (CPI) is much farther reaching than just the products that they produce. With respect for the power of the materials they handle, the CPI must act responsibly, considering factors that can affect workers, the community and the environment. A recent visit to two of Degussa’s production facilities in the U.S. gave an inside look as to how one company addresses these issues, sometimes in unexpected ways.

With 1,800 acres, the Mobile, Alabama site is Degussa’s largest manufacturing facility in the U.S. A multitude of products are made here, including fumed silica and methionine (an amino acid used for animal feed). The location is strategic for transportation, but also necessitates consideration for hurricane preparedness. An onsite emergency-command center responds to this need and to all other emergencies. This center, with its variety of communication and weather-tracking equipment, is housed in an extensive medical-services building. A tour of the facility reveals two examination rooms, a doctor’s office, a decontamination room, a kitchen, supply area, and an “ER-type” room with three beds and various medical monitors. Two dedicated ambulances and a 24-h staff of registered nurses and medical technicians stand ready. In addition to emergency treatment, routine medical services such as annual physicals, are offered to employees. The building is equipped with its own generator and a fuel supply sufficient to sustain the facility for 40 h. In case of a hurricane threat, a structured plan is in place to prepare for the potential storm, including such bullet-points as stocking up with food and water.

Involvement with health and safety does not stop at the plant perimeter. In May, Degussa sponsored an International Pandemic Symposium in Alabama, which addressed societal and infrastructural issues that woul be critical if pandemic influenza struck. Degussa’s involvement beyond the plant perimeter does, in fact, extend further. The company’s Greensboro, N.C. site is very active with its community through a Community Advisory Panel and contributions such as a recent donation that enabled students from a local elementary school to visit the nation’s capital. In 2006, the Mobile site contributed more than $115,000 under its “Essential to the Community” donation program. This includes donations to local civic organizations, educational activities, the arts and environmental groups.

The environment is also the focus of a prestigious award recently bestowed on the Greensboro site, when it was named a “Rising Environmental Steward” by the state of North Carolina. This recognition is part of a voluntary program designed to promote and encourage superior environmental performance by the state’s regulated community. At the Mobile site, environmental criteria are the focus of a state-of-the-art wastewater-treatment facility, which processes an average of 1-million gallons of water per day through aerobic biological treatment, clarification, maturation and biofiltration. Here, a host of physical tests are performed daily on the treated water before it is returned to the Mobile Bay. In addition to those tests, Degussa also performs bioassays to test the potential toxicity of a substance by measuring its effect on a living organism. The facility includes a laboratory that is a somewhat unusual site in a chemical plant — it houses a roomful of aquariums with various aquatic life, most noticeably, sea urchins. Cells collected from the sea urchins are used to test the toxicity of the treated water in a bioassay test that is so sensitive, that the chlorine added to the city’s drinking water has to be “treated out” so as not to cause a problem.

Taking Degussa as an example, health, safety, the environment and the community are indeed as much a part of the CPI as the products produced.

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