20 Years Later

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While we've been remembering those who gave their lives in service to our country we also are remembering a tragic event that happened on the eve of Memorial Day 20 years ago.

At sunrise May 27, 1994, an explosion that could be felt throughout the area rocked a Belpre chemical plant.

In the more than 15 years since Kraton Polymers purchased the former Shell chemical plant, it has made $180 million in capital investments.

That includes a $50 million installation in progress of two natural gas steam boilers.

They're designed to make the plant more energy efficient and to reduce hazardous emissions and greenhouse gases.

Past improvements include a $27 million expansion of one of the plant's operating departments, a $30 million computer modernization, a new $40 million innovation center, and a $30 million conversion of another department to polyisoprene rubber.

"In 20 years, that's a lot of money: $275 million, at a time when companies are being very judicious about where they spend their money; not only how they spend it but in what locations. And we're very proud that Kraton has invested it here," says Mike White, Kraton plant spokesman.

That does not count a $97 million rebuild of the K-1 unit, damaged in the May 1994 explosion in which three shell chemical employees died.

Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz retired as the plant's maintenence supervisor in 2006.

He personally knew the three victims: Gary Reed, Michael Harris and George Nutter.

"Michael was closer to my age and had two little kids. He was a very active person, but so were George and Gary. we had a lot in common, and when we got to work, we had the job and that family time in common," says Lorentz.

White notes that, of the employees who were there 20 years ago, more than 150 still work there today.

An example of the community that was Shell and is Kraton.

And, beyond the accident, what is remembered most is the way Belpre and the surrounding area responded.

Part of that response came from the owner of the Belrock Country Diner.

"We prepared over 500 sandwiches and delivered them to the Red Ccross, and helped them deliver sandwiches. We also took ice, in case they needed ice for drinks or for safety," says diner owner Steve Null.

"You couldn't go down Washington Boulevard without seeing all the support signs to the plant and to the company, and not get a lump in your throat about how much support we received, at a time when
we needed it the most," says White.

Improvements in the immediate aftermath of the accident also included $18 million in safety upgrades.

Kraton says a quarter million dollars is spent in maintaining and testing the safety system.

"I live close, this is my city. I feel sure that, with my son working down there, he's doing everything safely. We're not going to be looking at that again," says Lorentz.

With the plant perhaps even more of Belpre's economy than it was two decades ago, "never again" is something residents are counting on.

Today, Kraton Polymers has 500 employees.

And with the closing of some local industrial plants, and the downsizing of others, it is now one of the area's largest private employers.

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