The chemical industry in Niagara Falls heading into 2000 is a close-knit group that shares resources to survive.
Once a thriving and competitive industry, Niagara chemical companies have been decimated over the past half century. Today there are only a handful of plants that congregate between Buffalo Avenue and Niagara Falls Boulevard in the city's south end -- "Chemical Row" -- and, far from competing, they work together.
"There's an enclave of chemical plants in the Buffalo Avenue area that depend on each other," said Rudy Caputo, the plant manager at Praxair Inc. "If one of us left, it would affect us all."
Praxair, formerly the Lindy Division of Union Carbide Corp., has plants in 40 countries that rang up a total $4.8 billion in sales in 1998.
The company "sells the air," Caputo said, meaning oxygen, nitrogen and argon. Praxair separates air into its components and recovers other gases to sell to a growing number of customers worldwide..
In the spirit of cooperation with other chemical companies in Niagara Falls, Praxair supplies its neighbor Occidental Chemical Corp. with nitrogen. It also pipes nitrogen to Dupont and Niacet Corp., while Occidental and Olin Corp. supply Praxair with hydrogen.
Praxair also pipes water to its other neighbor, American Ref-Fuel Co. Although not a chemical company, American Ref-Fuel is part of the mix, sending steam in pipelines to Occidental, Praxair, Niacet and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company's Niagara Falls chemical plant to be used in the manufacture of their products.
"We all rely on each other and share our resources," said Daniel O. Carey, the plant manager at American Ref-Fuel. "If someone like Oxy were to leave, it would be devastating for us."
Olin Corp.'s Niagara Falls plant -- under various names -- has been on the same Buffalo Avenue site since 1897. But that doesn't necessarily spell security.
"The good news about this past year is that we survived," said Rick Hall, the plant manager. "Last year was the toughest business year for our industry in 25 years."
Olin is the leading producer of chlorine and caustic soda in the Eastern United States, Hall said. The chlorine produced by the Niagara Falls plant ends up in such varied products as swimming pools, plastic hospital bags and vehicle bumper bars. Hall said lower prices for products worldwide made 1999 difficult, "but we anticipate being on the positive side of the ledger this year."
The spirit of cooperation is alive and well at Olin. In addition to supplying hydrogen, a byproduct in chlorine manufacture, to Praxair, Olin also pipes the hydrogen to its neighbor Dupont, which uses it to generate steam. Olin also shares the nitrogen it gets from Praxair with Dupont.
"Without the hydrogen that Olin supplies us, we would have to burn natural gas to generate steam," said Dupont's Niagara Falls site head Kelly W. Korber. "This sharing of resources helps reduce production costs and emissions into the atmosphere."
Dupont, which employs 460 people in its Buffalo Avenue plant, produces sodium metal and lithium metal used in the manufacture of such diverse products as car batteries, safety glass and paper whitener. A Dupont-developed fiber, Terathane, is used to make Lycra, a stretch fabric for sportswear, and in roller skate wheels.
Olin sells its chlorine to another Niagara Falls chemical company ringing up sales around the world, Niacet Corp. The 47th Street plant is the largest producer in North America and the second largest in the world of food and pharmaceutical intermediates such as bread preservatives, said Kelly Brannen, the managing director.
"Business is good," said Brannen. The company just landed a large contract that will keep it busy for at least the next four years.
Niacet's products range from calcium propionate, which keeps bread fresh for at least a 10-day shelf life, to sodium phenoxy, which is used in the manufacture of penicillin V. The company sells product as far as India and China.
Like Praxair, Niacet is a spinoff from Union Carbide, and today, with 84 employees, it is a family business. Brannen's father, Michael, bought the company in 1978 and now it is run jointly by Kelly Brannen, his brother, Michael Brannen III, and his brother-in-law Larry Montani.
The biggest chemical company in Niagara Falls, Occidental Chemical Corp., with 650 employees, is getting back into the production of specialty chemicals that are used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals, said Thomas F. Fenney, the plant manager.
The company cut back on specialty chemicals in the late 1980s and decided to put its money into commodity chemicals like chlorine, an ingredient in Clorox bleach. But in 1996, Oxy decided to reactive its production of specialty chemicals, such as Oxsol, a general purpose solvent, Feeney said.
A $200 million expansion program was begun at the Buffalo Avenue site, including the restoration of a facility -- Building M-15 -- that will produce the specialty chemicals. The final phase of the project was completed last year.
The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. has operated its Niagara Falls Chemical Plant at the same location off 56th Street since 1946. Formerly known as Pathfinder Chemicals, its name changed in 1956.
The plant, which gets its steam from American Ref-Fuel, currently has 90 employees and makes an anti-oxident chemical that is sold globally to rubber manufacturers to extend the life of the rubber, for example preventing sidewalls on vehicle tires from cracking. The company is the world's major producer of the chemical, known as "Winstay 100," said plant manager Tom Grolemund.
The plant is in the middle of a $1 million expansion and modernizationGrolemund said.