Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Regional Chlorine Shortage

There is a chlorine shortage in the northwest of the West Coast.  On Friday, June 11, Westlake, a chlorine manufacturer in Longview, WA notified customers that their manufacturing was down due to an unexpected failure of a critical piece of electrical equipment- a transformer. 

This has caused a disruption to the available supply of chlorine, a key chemical in water treatment process. Chlorine products are essential for treating drinking water and processing wastewater. Disinfection kills or inactivates harmful microorganisms which can cause illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and giardiasis. Sometimes, water systems use chlorination for taste and odor control, iron and manganese removal, and to stop nuisance growths in wells, water pipes, storage facilities and conduits. Chlorine remaining in the water supply, or added after disinfection is available to fight against potential contamination in water distribution and storage systems that might enter through leaks and pipe breakages. This is called secondary disinfection. 

By last Wednesday it became apparent that supply chain interruptions were more extensive than previously thought and much of the West Coast had been impacted including water utilities in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.  Westlake hopes to have the equipment repaired by the end of the month and start up the manufacturing plant after that. In the meantime, water utilities, especially the smaller ones, are asking customers to conserve water and limit outdoor use such as filling pools, washing cars or watering lawns to stretch the supply of chlorine they have on hand.

The electrical failure at Westlake follows a fire that destroyed BioLab in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in August 2020, rendering that plant inoperable to this day. That facility was responsible for a significant portion of chlorine tablets produced for the U.S. market. In addition, national production and shipping were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a nationwide chlorine shortage so that the northwest water utilities are having difficulty obtaining other sources of chlorine.

As you recall, we as a nation woke up in April 2020 to discover that not only toilet paper and paper towels were in short supply, but therapeutic and diagnostic pharmaceuticals, ventilators, other medical devices, personal protective equipment, certain foods and computer equipment were also in short supply. The U.S. found itself strategically vulnerable in a time of crisis, realizing that we had sacrificed supply chain reliance for lower costs.

At the time and in response to congress the  manufacturer and engineering trade associations and the RAPID Manufacturing Institute outlined several strategies for strengthening U.S. supply chains that included moving from large centralized manufacturing to smaller geographically distributed production facilities; data integration along the supply chain, and maintaining and adequately tracked and rotated “just-in-case” levels of inventory. It was recommended that companies  map and analyze their supply chains to identify the weak links in domestic supplies of strategically important products and resolve them. It appears that the water utilities in the northwest (and probably elsewhere) had only a two week supply or less of disinfection products on hand.

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