Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 10, 2013

Sudden closing

Local officials were given no chance to try to save plant

The Independent

ASHLAND — Here today; gone tomorrow. That old adage seems to best describe the sudden closing of the  SunChemical Performance Pigments in Wurtland and the pending elimination of 30 jobs.

Monday’s announcement that the Wurtland plant would close after more than two decades of being a small, but dependable industrial employer in the small town came without warning. While the closing of other area industrial plants like the coke plant and tannery in Ashland were rumored for years before they ceased operation, there had been no rumors of the closing of the SunChemical plant. That’s what made Monday’s announcement such a shocker.

Wurtland Mayor Donna Hayes said she was caught off guard by the announcement.

“The phone rang at the house and plant manager Bill Henley advised they are shutting down. That’s when they told the employees, too,” Hayes said, adding she was soon fielding calls from many, including the employees whose jobs had been negated. The mayor said she has strong sympathy for Henley, and did not envy his task of informing longtime employees about the closure.

“I think he is overwhelmed, too,” the mayor said of the plant manager.

Like everyone else, Greenup County Judge-Executive Bobby Carpenter was surprised by the closing. He also was disappointed the county was given no opportunity to see what it could do to save the plant.

“This kind of blindsided us,” Carpenter said. “They never asked us to do anything and I never had any indication they were having problems.” The county’s chief executive quickly added local officials remain ready and willing to do anything within their means to help the company remain in business locally.

However, the fact that SunChemical had not even discussed the pending closing is a fairly clear indication the company’s decision was final and there was nothing local officials could do to save the plant.

Although the plant did not have many employees, Hayes said they were good jobs and the closing was hard on the entire Wurtland community,

“This is a small community and we not only know the people who worked there, we know their moms and dads and wives ... we know their entire family,” Hayes said.

So where do local officials go from here? We’re not sure.

While the economic impact of the plant closure will have to be studied more closely before city officials know what issues and decisions await, Hayes said at least one consideration is certain. “They were such a vital part of our community,” she said. “We know the wastewater treatment plant will need to be downsized.”

The Wurtland facility had been in operation for more than two decades, although the plant did shut down for six months about five years ago. The local plant made blue ink for printers, and according to MacRae’s Blue Book industrial guide, Sun Chemical manufactures “dyes, colorants, color compounds and dispersions, carbon black, inorganic metal oxides, titanium dioxide, organic pigments, pigments,  chemicals including biochemicals and gas materials.”

When the plant was first announced, it was a bit controversial because of environmental problems a similar plant has encountered in another community, but if there were any environmental problems with the Wurtland plant, we are not aware of it.

While SunChemical’s decision seems final and irreversible, we are not certain whether another company would be interested in moving into the closed plant or if they would even be possible without major renovations. However, finding a buyer for the plant should be a high priority, even if the new owner would demolish the current plant and build another facility.

About the time SunChemical Performance Pigments was moving into Wurtland, National Mine Service was closing its Wurtland facility. The pigment plant helped offset the economic impact of that decision, although National Mine had many more workers in Wurtland than SunChemical.

Don’t blame local officials for the closing. Not only could they do nothing to prevent it, they weren’t even ask to try.

It is now up to the elected leaders in Wurtland and Greenup County and economic development leaders at the Ashland Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce of Boyd and Greenup Counties and officials in Frankfort to get together and decide what can and should be done to minimize the impact of the plant’s sudden closing.