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A low Rhine is hampering Europe’s chemical traffic

Disruptions to chemical production mount as the waters reach record lows

by Alex Tullo
October 25, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 43


A photo of a ship passing by a sandbank.
Credit: Thomas Frey/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom
Low waters have made the Rhine increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.

The lowest recorded water level on the Rhine River, caused by a drought in Western Europe, has slowed chemical traffic and is forcing companies to cut production and ration shipments to customers.

The Rhine is a major thoroughfare for the chemical industry. And major plants, such as BASF’s complex in Ludwigshafen, Germany, line its shore. In 2017, the Rhine transported 186 million metric tons of commodity traffic, about half of all of Europe’s, according to the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine. Chemical shipments made up 11% of that volume.

According to the barge operator Interrijn, water levels at Kaub, Germany, a choke point on the river between Ludwigshafen and Cologne, dipped to 27 cm on Oct. 24, about 50 cm below where they were only a month before. At such levels, a small barge can carry no more than 400 metric tons of cargo, says Louis Bosman, Interrijn’s general manager, who notes that some large barges can’t pass Kaub at all.

Companies are switching to truck and rail to make deliveries, but that hasn’t been enough to keep plants operating at full throttle.

BASF announced in August that it was adjusting production because of the low Rhine. Now, according to S&P Global Platts, the company has declared force majeure on 2-ethylhexyl acrylate and other acrylates.

Similarly, Solvay says its nylon 6,6 operation in Chalampé, France, is still experiencing problems after it warned customers over the summer it might not fulfill all of its orders. Some days, the firm says, it doesn’t receive any vessels at all.

Celanese is instituting sales controlfor polyacetal resin partly because of the low waters around Frankfurt, its largest plant for the engineering polymer.

Shell Chemicals says barges can’t enter Wesseling harbor in Germany, where it makes olefins and aromatics. “We are utilizing all supply routes available to us and have adjusted production levels,” a spokesperson says.

For now, all eyes are on the weather forecast. “We expect this weekend a little bit of rain,” Interrijn’s Bosman said on Oct. 24. “Let’s hope the situation will be better soon.”


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