Fire Ravages ELMs Soy Lubes Plant in Iowa


A fire on March 20 destroyed the bio-based lubricants production facility of Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing Inc. in Plainfield, Iowa. ELM Chairman and co-founder Lou Honary told Lube Report the fire began in heat transfer oilsused in making grease,in the facilitys grease production area.

Honary said he had joined a visiting customer in town for lunch and was driving from the restaurant when he saw smoke rising from the production facility. We had a very, very high wind driving straight into the corner where the fire started and right into the rest of the facility, he recalled, adding that the winds direction helped spare from damage a large soybean oil storage tank farm next to the rail siding on the site.

The hot oil used inmaking the grease caused the problem, Honary said. We heat our grease kettles with hot oil,” he explained. “The hot oil that is used to make the grease got on the equipment, floor and everything. We still dont know why the oil got out there. The system has worked for several years, so we need to find out why it happened.

ELM is meeting with its insurance company, he said, which has major fire experts reviewing the incident. We feel like we know what happened, Honary added. The real experts will have to come back and say why this happened, so were allowing them to do their due diligence.

The company is a leading provider of bio-based lubricants and greases in the United States. Its lubricants, greases and metalworking fluids are formulated with domestically grown vegetable oils. The company sells 45 products across a variety of lines, including hydraulic fluids, greases, metalworking lubricants and fluids, metalworking tankside additives and cleaners, specialties and lubricant services.

Its 13-acre production site consisted of a 25,000-square-foot office and industrial complex which contained converting equipment and partially converted raw materials such as base soybean oil and soy-based industrial grease.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the fire began at about 1:20 p.m. on March 20. Thick smoke from the fire forced emergency crews to close Highway 218 and evacuate a small area around the plant until about 7 p.m. that evening. Crews contained the fire, and smoke was gone by the evening, though the crews remained on the scene to monitor small fires still burning.

The facility, which housed offices as well as the production facility, served as the companys headquarters, according to Honary. He said about 15 people worked at the facility, including advisors and part-time workers. The company began moving into the facility in 2002, he said, and it became operational in 2003.

We have about six million pounds worth of storage at the facility, and it was over half full, Honary said. While the tanks were unscathed, Honary said ELM did have some materials indoors because vegetable-based products need to be stored inside in winter time, or they need to be heated to be kept outside. Not all the tanks are heated, he said. We had a lot of materials inside, more so than we would in summer, so that may have made it more difficult to control the fire, he added.

The company has set up temporary offices. We are extremely grateful that no one was hurt and that with the assistance of our local telephone company we were able to immediately execute our disaster recovery plan and re-implement all of our communication and IT systems, said Jim ORegan, ELMs chief operating officer. With their help, our entire team was able to report to work today [March 21] at the temporary offices we have set up in downtown Plainfield.

Department officials are investigating the potential environmental impact of chemicals such as additives that may have burned or been released into the environment. Crews built sand dikes around the site to contain any runoff. We are waiting for a list of the chemicals found at the site to evaluate the potential impact, said Mike Wade, senior environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Manchester field office. Not knowing exactly what chemicals were burning, it was a smart move on the part of emergency crews to evacuate the small number of homes around the area.

While fire officials expressed some concern about possible fumes from the additives, Honary said the soybean oil in the facility should not be a problem. The actual product itself is soybean oil, he said. I think overall what got on the floors mixed with water or whatever they use for fire suppression will probably biodegrade in time. I think were less concerned about long term environmental persistence of these products there, than if it were a different product.

While the company needs help in terms of production, Honary said, it remains in good shape in terms of having the necessary raw materials. Our oil is a specialty soybean oil, he said. We have large quantities of it, and we also have other quantities available at other storage facilities. The raw oil is not a concern, and the additives – most of them -are similar to what you would buy from anybody else. Were in the Midwest, and if we want more soybean oil, we can definitely get our hands on some.

Honary said he has been impressed with and grateful for the level of support and inquiries to offer help the company has received since the fire, which included offers for immediate manufacturing services and support. Were going to take that, he said.

I think we feel definitely very confident well survive and come out of this stronger, he said. Im certain well continue to feed additional information out into the industry so we can talk more about the causes of this.

Although rebuilding is an option, Honary said the company needs to examine all its options. This is a time you dont want to jump the gun, he said. We have already begun our insurance loss adjustment efforts as well as our investigation into replacing the facilities.

Because the technology is Iowa-grown, the goal is as much as possible to keep the employment and everything in the community and help the economy of the state, Honary explained. But at the same time its a good time for us to look at this very, very objectively and say, What is the best thing for this industry and technology? he said. If the best thing is to do it closer to major customers, maybe we should look at it now. There is definitely a lot of soul searching being done. We have tremendously capable board members and advisors that are looking at this every minute and well come up with the best decision.

ELM was formed in 2000 to commercialize the soybean-based lubricant and grease technology developed at the University of Northern Iowas Ag-Based Industrial Lubricants Research Program.

ELMs largest customers for its grease products include railroads and large trucking firms. Last year the company introduced its Soylube brand of retail products, a complete series of lubricants designed for retail, farm and fleet, and hardware stores. Its now in about 640 stores in the Midwest.

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