Charleston, W.Va.-Area Likely to Get New Italian Chemical Plant

Aug. 27--The Kanawha Valley is on the verge of landing a major new chemical plant, promising the first big surge in manufacturing jobs here in years.

The Italian chemical maker Esseco Group settled on the Charleston area for its first U.S. manufacturing plant last month and is now in talks with two "private parties" about which site would be best, said David Crisp, general manager of the company's U.S. operations.

"We've targeted West Virginia as the primary location since it's smack dab in the center of gravity for our market base," said Crisp on Thursday.

The plant will make sodium solutions -- used in water treatment, food production and pharmaceuticals -- to be sold primarily to chemical distributors and, to a lesser degree, other chemical manufacturers.

There's still an outside chance that Esseco could opt for a different city or state, but right now Charleston is its first choice. A final decision should be reached by mid-October, with production starting as soon as early 2007, Crisp said.

Estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $20 million to build, the plant would need to fill manufacturing positions such as plant managers, lab workers, equipment operators and shipping people, Crisp said.

He would not predict how many jobs would be filled, but the issue of hiring played a factor in the decision to focus on Charleston. "We like Charleston because it's chemical friendly and has an educated work force," Crisp said.

Formed in 1920, Esseco is based in Trecate, in northern Italy, and specializes in making sulfur-dioxide derivatives, which are employed in a variety of industrial processes.

Although North America represents its biggest market, it carries out all of its manufacturing in a 10,000-square-foot plant in Trecate, with U.S. operations limited to distribution. It has a warehouse in Baltimore and corporate headquarters in Parsippany, N.J., just outside New York City.

The company has decided to expand because "it wants to be a global leader in this market," Crisp said. Its big competitors are BASF AG of Ludwigshafen, Germany, and Solvay SA of Brussels, Belgium, he said.

The new plant will make two sodium "crystal" products: sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite. These take a powder form resembling laundry detergent and are used in the food and drug industries.

Also under production will be sodium bisulfite solution, which is used almost entirely for water-treatment processes.

At first, about 60,000 short tons of the three chemicals will be produced annually, the company said.

About 80 percent of Esseco's customers are chemical distributors, while the rest are mostly manufacturers. Crisp wouldn't name the company's biggest customers, but the tri-state area's main distributors are DuPont Co., Dow Chemical Co., Bayer Group and Ashland Inc.