An explosion and fire occurred at the Northern port terminal on the Rhine river at Ludwigshafen on the morning of 17 October. The fire was not extinguished until late afternoon. Sadly, two firefighters and one other person were killed and another 8 seriously injured. Initially speculation was rife in the chemical industry community that many plants would be shut down for a quarter, while official investigations were carried out. However, a later announcement from BASF indicates that downtime will be much shorter. We have tried to stand back and assess what might be the repercussions of the accident. It appears that disruption will be much less than initially feared, though undoubtedly it will take some time logistics and the supply chain to be brought back to normal.
The explosion took place in pipes delivering feedstocks to the plants. The main feedstock involved is naphtha, which can no longer be supplied to the two crackers, which have been shut down. Also supply of ethylene from the EPS pipeline and propylene from the nearby refinery at Karlsruhe has been interrupted. BASF has announced that naphtha supplies can be brought in through the Southern port terminal, which will enable the crackers to be restarted shortly. It appears that only pipe racks were destroyed by the explosion and no operating plants were damaged.
The shutdown of the crackers means suspension of supplies of ethylene and propylene to the downstream units. In the table we have attempted to identify which plants might have had to be shut as a result. BASF has announced that 22 plants had to be shut down in addition to the two crackers. We have identified almost that number in the table, but BASF has not given any indication of which plants have been shut down, though in a few cases we have obtained confirmation indirectly. Remaining plants on the vast site have continued operating, using feedstocks in inventory.
There may have been collateral effects not related to ethylene or propylene. Supplies of hydrogen will have been curtailed with the crackers and also the styrene plant out of commission. This could have led to closure of the caprolactam plant, for example, but this has not been confirmed. There may be sufficient supplies of reformer hydrogen to avoid this. Aromatics units (benzene, toluene, xylenes, etc.) will not have been affected, since they are located on Friesenheim Island in the middle of the river, though ethylbenzene and styrene plants have been closed due to lack of ethylene.
BASF stated on 19 October that the steam crackers will be restarted within days. We presume that the fire was sufficiently localised that the crackers and downstream units were not physically affected, and operation can restart with naphtha brought in via the terminal on Friesenheim Island. It appears that the authorities are not concerned that the safety of the operating plans has been compromised to the point that a long term shutdown will be necessary. Indeed BASF has advised residents living nearby that flaring will take place from 20 October as plants are restarted. The railway system has not been damaged and can continue to operate through the Southern gate, though the Northern gate is closed for the time being. Road trucks can not use Gate 15 and will be diverted to other gates.
Force majeure has been declared by BASF on its purchasing contracts for naphtha, ethylene and propylene. As regards sales contracts, it is heard that force majeures have been declared for a few products, but on most of these there is no public confirmation from BASF.
The integrated Verbund system at Ludwigshafen, which has so many obvious advantages shows its disadvantages at a time like this when the delicate relationship between the various plants and the delivery systems for feedstocks is compromised, having a domino effect on almost all pieces within the system.
Customers have reported that BASF has invoked force majeure on the supply of plasticizers out of Ludwigshafen on 18 October. Both the phthalic anhydride and the plasticisers units had been on a planned shutdown since September and may not have restarted before the explosion occurred.
In the case of acrylic acid and acrylates, a force majeure was declared on 19 October on all acrylic monomers out of Ludwigshafen, based on logistics issues and raw materials supply constraints. Allocation levels will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The imminent restart of the crackers should address at least the propylene feedstock problem. At the same time, it should be noted that damage to pipelines and to the harbour means that the delivery of various feedstocks is probably limited to tank trucks which means that throughput must be limited.
It is understood that there has been no damage to the acrylics plants themselves. It has been speculated that BASF will bring product from other regions to help internal and external customers meet their requirements. It looks likely that BA could come from Brazil to meet the needs of European customers. This has not been confirmed or denied at source. There are some concerns over adequacy of supply in the short term in a market that has just come out of a summer of production issues that reduced availability. One co-producer, Dow Chemicals, has responded by tightening sales control on acrylates in North America to include all acrylic monomers. This measure is expected to be short-lived.
On 20 October, BASF confirmed on Twitter that the crackers were in the process of being gradually restarted.
Written by Charles Fryer and Philippa Davies. Information and statistics were compiled by various Tecnon OrbiChem experts.
Business Manager – Maleic Anhydride, Acrylates, Urethanes, UPR & Bio-Materials