Business demand for the array of products created at BASF's Geismar complex remains mixed but uncertainty over the corornavirus pandemic has led to a general slowing of progress on longer-term capital projects planned at the facility, a top company official said.
Kevin McCarroll, operations director for BASF's huge facility along the Mississippi River, said the plant's 1,350 employees are expected to remain stable but he declined to project the number of contractors that BASF would employ in the coming months.
Contractors are a major source of employment when the plant is operating at full speed or engaged in significant construction and maintenance. He called their future numbers at the complex "fluid."
McCarroll said that before the pandemic hit the state, the Geismar complex had about 1,700 contractors working and then, during the outbreak, the facility had a "pretty large maintenance outage," which typically needs contractor help.
"Once we come back, I'm not sure what that number's gonna be, so I don't really want to quote a number right now, but, you know, it's not gonna be at the 1,700 it was before," McCarroll said.
His comments came during a Zoom meeting open to the media Tuesday organized by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. He was responding to a direct question from Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of BRAC.
More than a year ago, BASF announced it would start an $87 million expansion of its methylene diphenyl diisocyanate facility by the end of 2019 and hoped to have it finished in 2021.
Also known as MDI, the chemical makes polyurethane foams used in the cars, buildings and appliances, product lines that fall in some of the broader sectors McCarroll suggested had seen reduced demand due to the virus.
McCarroll didn't clarify what capital projects might be slowed.
Jolen Stein, a BASF spokeswoman, said Tuesday evening that McCarroll's comments weren't about the MDI project, in particular, but a more general statement about capital spending. The MDI unit expansion remains underway, she said.
Aimed at revealing the economic conditions in the parish, the online event with BRAC also drew Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment; Kate MacArthur, the parish's top economic development official; and others.
Cointment said the parish has seen some sales tax decreases in the first months of pandemic shutdown and the parish has sidelined about $44 million in projects for the time being, but BRAC data show the parish's consumer spending remains only slightly off pre-pandemic levels.
Sales taxes form the majority of parish and other local government revenues, and the parish's industrial sector provides the majority of that sales tax revenue.
BASF's Geismar facility sits on one of the longest running industrial sites in Ascension and is the parish's largest private employer.
The German chemical manufacturer's complex is also one of its few "Verbund" sites worldwide, which emphasize integration of production lines to support one another and improve efficiency.
As the result, the Geismar complex kicks out all sorts of chemicals used in the modern marketplace. McCarroll said all of the complex's 24 units are operating but the pandemic has had different effects on demand.
He said business in the automotive and construction sectors have really slowed but activity in the "consumer care" and pharmaceuticals have picked up. The latter sectors include chemicals used in the sterilization of medical equipment, soaps and household disinfectants.
"We're very core to the providing of products in the fight against COVID," McCarroll said.
Still, he said business leaders in some of the softer sectors don't know what the future holds, so BASF is looking at where it can save money and that has led to a review of large capital projects in planning.
"There's not been any discussion to stop that, but, you know, how do we slow it down to make it through these tough … financial times. We've been looking at different options there," McCarroll said.