Employees, families face uncertainty upon Butler County plant closure
What remains of a community when the main supplier of jobs disappears.
Aug. 9, 2017
When the INDSPEC Chemical Corporation plant in Petrolia permanently closes on Sept. 30, not only will it mark the last of about 200 workers losing their jobs, but also the region’s loss of an anchor that has defined their lives for nearly a century.
INDSPEC, an affiliate of Occidental Chemical Corporation (OXY), stopped production of resorcinol and related-products earlier this year. Resorcinol is the bonding agent that holds the steel belt to the rubber in the production of tires.
The plant once produced tear gas and premium marine glue used on wooden torpedo patrol boats by the United States Navy during World War ll. It was a classified plant and when workers were asked what they made there, they claimed they cut the warts off pickles. They referred to it as Pickleworks.
In 2008, a leak of oleum (also known as sulfuric acid) occurred when a tank overflowed, creating a white cloud and forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 people in Petrolia and nearby communities.
Here are the stories of a few people whose lives were intertwined with the plant:
Turner, 49, has lived her entire life in nearby Chicora. She graduated from Karns City High School in 1985 and has two children enrolled in the district. She said the impact of the plant closing will be widely felt in the school district with 1,463 students. The district encompasses six boroughs and seven townships. “It is devastating. Everyone knows someone who works there,” Turner said. “If you were hired at INDSPEC, you thought you had a job for life.”
The projected financial loss to the district is $140,000: $40,000 in earned income taxes and $100,000 in additional medical coverage for displaced workers whose spouses are employed by the district. The losses may limit the district’s ability to upgrade the facilities and provide some electives. In a region where there are few activities for children, Turner says it is too early to know if they will need to eliminate some of the extracurricular activities the district offers.
Southern Butler County has benefited from increased population and employers such as Westinghouse. “I would like to see some of the growth come this way,” Turner said.
Turner estimates 93 student families in the district had a family member employed at the plant. When school starts on Aug. 29, teachers and staff are prepared to listen to students who want to talk about how the plant closure has affected them. “We have a phenomenal staff here,” she said.
Kelly has worked at the restaurant for 19 years and she has no plans to retire. She has witnessed a decline in business over the years and predicts business will continue to slow down because of the plant closure. Plant managers and clerical staff used to come to the restaurant, but lately workers preferred to visit the nearby convenience store or bring their own lunches.
Kelly has lived in nearby Bruin since 1976 and although her three adult children have found work elsewhere in region, she believes the region has little to offer to younger generations. “You don’t see kids out playing in the streets anymore. ... There is nothing around here for kids. I feel bad for the families,” Kelly said. “I am praying they find something.”
Bobbi Boltz said she felt fortunate when she was offered a position at INDSPEC 21 years ago. Her husband was killed the week before the job offer in a hit-and-run accident, and she had two young daughters depending on her. The job “was a gift from heaven,” she said. “I was proud to go to work.”
Her father, brother, sister–in-law, two brothers-in-law and uncle all worked at the plant, too.
Boltz, 53, who made $32 an hour at INDSPEC, is unsure what she will do next: “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she said with a laugh.
Most INDSPEC employees made between $27 and $35 an hour, according to Harry Boltz, former president of the USW Local 13300.
All employees will qualify for job training under the Pennsylvania Trade Act.
The announcement that the plant would close surprised Fennell, the president of the USW Local 13300. “I figured we’d always be here because we were the only plant in the U.S. that made resorcinol,” said Fennell, 52.
Boltz worked at INDSPEC for 37 years and previously served as president for USW Local 13300. He met his future wife, Cinda Six, while working at the plant. They opened the convenience store before he retired from the plant.
“I am jaded,” Boltz said when asked about the impact of the plant closing. He believes mismanagement, too much liability and the 2008 spill hurt Occidental’s reputation as a safety-minded company. “This is one of two premier places to work in Butler County,” he said. “People will be driving twice as far for half the money.”
The convenience store serves as a community hub where the closest grocery store is more than 6 miles away. On a recent weekday, there was a steady stream of customers buying gas and snacks. But Boltz has already seen a drop-off in ATM traffic at his store and worries business will continue to decline. “We are not a go-to destination. We are going to lose the truck drivers and other vendors who deliver to the plant,” he said.
Hiles, 41, was laid off from his job as distillation operator at INDSPEC on March 27. He had worked there for six years. When he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years ago, he wondered if the chemicals in his work environment were to blame.
Hiles applied for a laborer’s position at AK Steel in Butler and believed a new job was imminent until he learned he had failed his physical and was told his disability was a possible safety issue. He said MS did not limit his ability to do his job at INDSPEC, where he climbed numerous flights of stairs every day. “I can’t even come close to finding a job that makes the same money,” he added.
Campbell had lived in Chicora his entire life until he recently moved his family to Slippery Rock because he was concerned about air and water quality in the Petroleum Valley.
While Campbell laments that the loss of jobs will be devastating to the area, he said, “This is a big opportunity for a dialogue about what’s going to happen. I would like to see them do something environmentally beneficial to the site. There are options out there.”
He hopes Butler County leadership will pursue development of green energy jobs.
Campbell is a member of the Green Party and eventually wants to run for public office on the Green Party platform. He appreciates how his employer Calumet Penreco, which makes petrolatum-based products in neighboring Karns City, is always communicating with their employees on the steps they are taking to protect the environment.
Six retired from INDSPEC in 2010 after 33 years. When she first started the job in 1977, she recalls feeling apprehensive. “I heard they were mean to women.” Six then realized she already knew many of the men working at the plant from the community and she began to feel at home. “If you treat them with respect, they will treat you with respect. “
Six now dedicates her time to serving Petrolia. The community is home to about 200 people. She is worried that the plant closing may increase the number of vacant houses and negatively affect low-income families and the elderly. “We are going to have to raise taxes,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear that.”
Photography and story — Martha Rial
Martha Rial is Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration — Idil Gözde
Idil Gözde is an award-winning multidisciplinary content creator who is known for her whimsical taste and love for illustrating compelling stories.
Web design and development — Natasha Khan and Cameron Scott
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