How do you dismantle a chemical plant for re-erection at the other side of the world?

Richard Vann, British Demolition Awards judge

Managing director of RVA Group, Richard Vann, recently spoke to Demolition Hub for his latest column, on how you can dismantle a chemical plant for re-erection at the other side of the world.

While a decommissioning project may represent the end of a chemical plant’s life for one operator, there are occasions when assets can be carefully salvaged, dismantled, and reinserted elsewhere into the global supply chain. Richard Vann, MD at RVA Group, explores the intricacies involved in such a complex assignment.

The chemical engineering market continues to pose newfound pressures and opportunities for operators worldwide. The number of decommissioning projects being planned on an international scale is therefore vast and varied.

Some plants, upon reaching the end of their design life, pose inefficiencies and safety risks due to ageing, making their continued operation unsustainable. Others reach a natural conclusion due to evolving compliance standards, so must be ring-fenced if operators are to remain on the right side of the law. As we’re witnessing across multiple industries right now, fiscal challenges have a significant part to play too.

However, while a facility may have reached the end of its useful life for one chemical manufacturer, it may still have operational potential elsewhere.  A second-hand plant may be used as a stop-gap measure by a client to get to market quickly, for example, whilst a more efficient plant is being constructed. Often, there is also an additional driver to move production closer to the end-user, to mitigate unit cost, time, and environmental impact.

The sequential dismantling of these hazardous facilities is inherently complex, with multifaceted variables affecting whether the project can be executed safely, while ensuring environmentally and commercially viable outcomes. But it is possible. 

Devising the plan

Before any decommissioning project commences, a bespoke feasibility and option study should be conducted — providing an objective, clear, and realistic view of the project’s true liability or opportunity. As well as gleaning plant-specific insights from the operator, this process considers the EHS, commercial, and financial factors associated with the site. Essentially, it ensures the decommissioning exercise isn’t entered ‘blind’.

This means assessing achievable costs, the quantity and location of residual materials, metallurgy and exotic material content, contamination levels, other potential hazards and risks, permit surrenders, the availability of drawings, closure processes, waste management obligations, required resources, relevant legislation, and programming constraints.

The route map will vary from one site to another, ranging from the selective removal and retrofitting of assets to complete ‘flat slab’ clearance or extensive mothballing. Often, the selected route may not have been considered or even deemed possible by the client, but the studies will aid data-driven decision making. Ideally, this exercise would begin long before the plant has even closed, although this is not always possible.

The decontamination challenge

Auditing the type and level of hazardous material contaminations, as well as the cleanliness and structural integrity of the assets, is crucial. This helps to ensure that appropriately-skilled personnel – equipped with the necessary PPE – are appointed to undertake the decontamination exercise, with minimum risk.

The objective should not be to over-clean materials. Instead, the goal is to take assets to a ‘known state’ that removes uncertainties and satisfies compliance requirements  If they are to be demolished for scrap, for instance, decontamination should at least meet regulatory requirements and prevent hazardous materials from entering recyclable waste streams.

Carefully considered disassembly 

Deploying a high degree of manual dismantling techniques allows for the precise disassembly — and reassembly — of assets. Once cleaned, components should be match-marked with unique codes for ease and accuracy of reconstruction. Some may also be sent to specialist companies for refurbishment and certification. Plus, providing accompanying drawings aids reassembly at the destined location, while careful transportation ensures the integrity of materials during shipment.

Geographical complexities

Irrespective of geography or the specifics of the assignment, safety and environmental considerations are paramount in projects involving international plant transfer. While most countries adhere to similar ethical and legislative benchmarks, there are naturally varying international, and even regional, nuances. Considering standards set in both the plant’s origination and destination locations is therefore crucial, although legislative parameters should set only the bare minimum criteria — the responsible decommissioning professional should vow to achieve the highest possible EHS standards.

Finding a plant buyer

While dismantling equipment for re-erection elsewhere is a possible route map, it’s not always commercially feasible — not least if a prospective end user is not immediately apparent, and/or a third party is sought to buy the assets. It’s often easier to transfer the facility to an operator within the same group, if possible.

During such transitions, ensuring compliance with local regulations, while adhering to global benchmarks for EHS regimes and technical methodologies, is key. To combat cultural and language differences, effective personnel relations, awareness training, and communication must also be adopted from the outset.

Pursuing external buyers may be inherently more complex — introducing significant decommissioning, refurbishment, and relocation costs. This, coupled with the view of decommissioned plants of ‘old technology’, is why completing a mutually-attractive deal is admittedly rare in these cases. And holding costs incurred during negotiations will only eat into profit margins. ‘Sale for reuse’ should therefore be considered as a ‘plan B’ route map.

Bottom line

The goal – for any chemical facility – should always be to maximise the return on assets where possible and safe to do so. However, factors such as plant age, former processes, recovery cost, testing, market forces and commercial competition, will all form part of the decision as to what should happen next.