Marathon Ashland embarks on improvement project

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2003

CATLETTSBURG, Ky. - You may not have noticed it, but a small army of workers has converged on Marathon Ashland Petroleum's Catlettsburg refinery.

That army is helping complete a huge improvement project costing more than $350 million. The project will retool the refinery, the origins of which date to the 1920s, and simultaneously pump massive fuel into the local economy.

"This is the largest project Marathon Ashland Petroleum has ever had," said Ken Woodworth, manager of refining projects for MAP.

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"The logistics of carrying off something like this is just amazing," he said. "It's tough to bring 3,000 people in here. All these guys are working in and around these operating units, and we've had a great safety record."

Asset Development Project

MAP refers to the work being done as an Asset Development Project. Essentially, that means the refinery is, well, refining the processes it uses: some will change, some will be expanded and some retired all together.

The plan began as a way to retool the plant to meet EPA clean fuel mandates scheduled to be in place by 2006.

Then MAP workers saw an opportunity to increase the efficiency and profitability of the plant at the same time.

"We really stepped back and took a look at how we could change things," Woodworth said, adding that combining the environmental and efficiency goals just made sense. "There's a real synergy there. There's kind of a marriage between the two."

When complete, the changes will significantly reduce emissions, Woodworth said, and it will allow MAP to meet the new EPA guidelines two years ahead of the deadline.

"Our cost to make (products) decreases. It's more efficient, cleaner," Woodworth said.

While some of the refining processes will change slightly, the products created at the refinery will not change substantially, though the amounts produced will.

The changes will allow the refinery to increase production of lighter, more environmentally sound fuels by approximately 10 percent and double its asphalt production.

The refinery has a capacity of 222,000 barrels per day. Products made include approximately 2 percent of the gasoline produced in the United States, kerosene, jet fuel, asphalt, fuel oil and a number of other petroleum products.

Huge scope, logistics

The project, even by MAP standards, is massive. It began four years ago in the conceptual stage, Woodworth said. Construction began last year.

But beginning Monday, the significant portion of the changeover will begin taking place.

While construction workers have averaged approximately 1,800 during the first phases, that changes Monday when contractors are expected to peak at approximately 3,000 workers.

"We've maxed out the local union halls," said Dianne Clement, advanced community relations representative with the refinery. " Rental properties are a struggle (to find)."

All of those workers are in addition to the nearly 1,000 MAP employees who regularly work in and around the refinery. Of those plant officials estimate approximately 100 live in Lawrence County, Ohio.

The refinery's regular employees have been amazing, Woodworth said.

"Their attitude is wonderful," he said. "We have a lot of good plants, but these guys are great."

Periodically, the refinery performs "turnarounds" during which individual processes are shut down for maintenance. This month's turnaround will combine the usual work, but also serve as the final thrust of finishing the massive project.

"It's an extremely difficult and intense time," Woodworth said. "We'll work around the clock until the end of January."

The project should be substantially complete by the first of February, he said.

Good signs for the future

More than 80 years after the plant began early operation on the banks of the Big Sandy River, refinery officials say the future looks bright.

"It's a significant investment the company is making, over $350 million," said Phil Hall, the refinery's human resources manager. Hall said the investment shows MAP's commitment to the Catlettsburg refinery. "The positive thing is the impact on the community."

Woodworth, who has temporarily relocated to the Tri-State from his home in Texas, agreed with Hall.

"I keep reading that you have to be competitive and this helps us become more competitive," he said. "It definitely bodes well for this refinery. I think spending the kind of money here is a good sign that we plan to be here for a while."