Celanese aerial

When the Celanese Corp. plant was built in Giles County 75 years ago, it ran on coal-fired boilers. Now, the company has completed a conversion to natural gas, because it’s cheaper and cleaner.

Celanese Corp. announced Tuesday that the global company’s manufacturing plant in Giles County has completed replacing its coal-fired boilers with boilers fueled by natural gas.

Celanese, based in Dallas, Texas, said the $150 million project replaced seven coal-fired boilers with five new boilers fueled by natural gas. The boilers provide steam to generate power and run factory processes.

The plant beside the New River between Narrows and Pearisburg employs about 1,000 people and is Giles County’s largest employer and taxpayer. In operation for 75 years, the facility “is one of the world’s largest producers of cellulose acetate tow,” a product used in filtration applications, including cigarette filters, the company said.

The conversion at the Celanese plant responded, in part, to Environmental Protection Agency regulations designed to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants, including greenhouse gases. The coal-fired boilers also produced fly ash, which can be a pollution source.

A company statement Tuesday from Jon Mortimer, vice president of manufacturing and capital projects for Celanese, said the change to natural gas boilers demonstrated two of the company’s core values — “being sustainable and improving the world.”

Mortimer added, “This is a milestone in Celanese’s continued growth and an opportunity for us to do our part to create a cleaner environment for the communities where we operate.”

Celanese launched the conversion project in August 2013. Natural gas is considered to be a cleaner choice than coal for power generation.

To supply the volume of natural gas needed by the new boilers, Celanese worked with Columbia Gas Transmission and Columbia Gas of Virginia. The gas companies built a pipeline of about 16 miles that used an existing pipeline right-of-way when possible.

Travis Jacobsen, a Celanese spokesman, said the pipeline diameters ranged from 8 inches to 12 inches.

Jacobsen said Columbia Gas “provided the capital, engineers and constructed their pipeline section. Celanese pays their capital recovery as part of the tariff fee for transporting the gas that Celanese buys.”

The Celanese statement included comments from Jean Lupinacci, an official with EPA’s Energy Star program.

“Improving the power system at the Narrows, Virginia, plant is both a smart business decision and is good for the environment,” Lupinacci said.

The project benefited from state and local incentives that totaled about $7 million.

The conversion has been cited by proponents of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline as an example of how access to natural gas can help attract and retain manufacturers. One route for that buried, 42-inch-diameter transmission pipeline would take it through Giles County.

Jacobsen declined to speculate about whether Celanese might have closed the Narrows plant had there not been access to a higher volume of natural gas.

In an email, he said, “Celanese does not comment on the ongoing operations or status of its global manufacturing facilities.”

Separately, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recently imposed a civil charge of $2,795 on the Celanese plant tied to two wastewater discharges last year into the New River that violated the facility’s permit with DEQ. DEQ’s consent order noted that the agency had not observed related impacts to the New River.

A few miles west of Narrows, the coal-fired Glen Lyn power plant operated in Giles County by Appalachian Power Co. will soon stop generating power. The utility has attributed the closing both to emissions regulations and the age of the plant, which first generated power in 1919. Appalachian has opted to convert some other coal-fired power plants to use natural gas.

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