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Low-flowing Rhine shuts BASF plant

Chemical companies are affected up and down the European river

by Alex Scott
November 28, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 48

A photo of BASF's Ludwigshafen site next to the Rhine River.
Credit: BASF
BASF has closed its TDI plant in Ludwigshafen due to low water levels on the Rhine River.

Problems caused by low water levels on the Rhine River have gone from bad to worse for German chemical companies.

BASF says it has closed its toluene diisocyanate facility in Ludwigshafen, Germany—several hundred kilometers up the Rhine from the North Sea—because record low water levels are preventing barges from delivering enough raw material. BASF says it had to shut the polyurethane chemical plant despite transferring as many shipments as it can from the river to pipeline, trucks, and rail. Restarting the plant will depend on improved water levels, BASF says, adding that it has no plans to shut any other plants.

The low water is affecting many German chemical companies dotting the Rhine as well as firms further upriver in Switzerland. Rather than recover from low flow during a dry summer, river levels have continued to drop.

Water depth in Kaub, Germany, more than 100 km downstream of Ludwigshafen, is about 30 cm. Large chemical barges, which can carry about 1,000 metric tons (t) of product, require at least 40 cm of water. Only smaller barges that carry 300–400 t of cargo and require 20–25 cm of water are able to cross at Kaub, according to Dutch barge company Interrijn. A year ago, water levels in Kaub were more than 2 meters.

Evonik Industries has cut production at all six of its chemical facilities in Germany that depend on shipping via the Rhine. Transport by train or truck can’t fully replace the river, the firm says. River levels in Worms, Germany, home of an Evonik plant some 20 km downstream of Ludwigshafen, were down to just 10 cm during the past week. Evonik has been warning its customers since June of possible delivery delays due to the low Rhine.

Lanxess, which has a major production site on the Rhine in Mannheim, Germany, near Ludwigshafen, says it has been able to maintain capacity by transporting more product via rail and road.

Meanwhile, Covestro has warned investors that its 2018 profits will be lower than expected partly due to low levels on the Rhine, which it blames for chemical production losses and higher shipping costs.


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