- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - For almost a century, the Hercules plant has stood as one of Hattiesburg’s most prominent landmarks.

Built shortly after World War I, the facility started out with a small workforce before expanding to one of the state’s largest employers over the next 50 years. In its heyday, the company produced more than 250 chemical products.

“That was the best place to work in all of Mississippi,” said Jack Bush, who started his career with the company in 1969. “They had good fringe benefits, high pay, and they just spent an awful lot of money here in Hattiesburg.

“Some of the most skilled craftsmen in this part of the country were working at Hercules, and they did fine jobs out there. It was amazing what they could do.”

But after about 60 years in business, production at the plant began to slow down because of the sluggish economy and decreased efficiency. Employment continued to steadily drop until operations finally ceased in 2009.

In 1920, the Wilmington, Delaware-based Hercules Powder Co., a manufacturer of explosive gunpowder, bought 100 acres in Hattiesburg on which to build a new facility.

Three years later, the plant opened at a cost of $500,000 and the company employed about 250-300 workers.

“The plant in Hattiesburg opened in order to harvest the stumps that were in the ground that were left over from the timber cuttings from the late 1800s, early 1900s,” Bush said. “They would grind up the stumps and extract the rosin out of them. They never actually made explosives at this plant.”

After World War I, the company began expanding into manufacturing wood-based chemical products that saw a wide range of uses, from pesticides to chewing gum additives.

In the early 1950s, the company began to ramp up operations, with employment topping 900 by 1953.

Over the next few years, employment dropped a bit, down to 760 by 1965. Still, Hercules boasted a $5 million payroll and produced more than 100 products including crude tall oil wax emulsions and polyamides.

“I enjoyed working there,” said Phil Valentine, who started with the labor pool in 1965. “I had good bosses, and the people that worked for me, I liked them. I don’t think I had anyone out there that worked for me, or that I worked for, that I just didn’t like.”

In 1966, Hercules Powder changed its name to Hercules Inc.

The 1970s were a peak period for Hercules, with employment swelling to 1,400 by 1974.

That same year, the plant began a Pinex experimental program in which a chemical was injected into tree stumps to increase rosin yield.

“They were trying to make pine trees yield the rosin that stumps yielded, but they never could make that work,” said Bush, who worked as a construction supervisor before leaving in 1987 to start his own company.

In 1980, Hercules underwent a $10 million-$20 million expansion of its Herclor synthetic rubber producing facility.

Unfortunately for the plant, that was one of its last bright spots.

In 1983, the plant’s primary extraction and refining area was shut down, and the next year 100 workers were laid off. By 1985, employment had dropped to 500-600.

“What happened was, Hercules changed management in the late 1970s,” Bush said. “The people that were running Hercules at the time were the people that were known as the organics group, which was the upper administration of the stump processing at the Hattiesburg plant and the Brunswick, Georgia, plant.

“They lost their positions, and another group took over, and they changed the direction of the company. Instead of manufacturing the rosin, they started buying it from China, and they became brokers instead of producers, and that started the downfall of the rosin business.”

In 1987, the Herclor synthetic rubber operation was sold to BF Goodrich, and by 1990, employment had dropped to 450. In 1993 the Delnav Building - named after a pesticide once made there - was destroyed, and two short years later employment had dropped to 156.

In 2000, the company sold its resins division accounts, and the next year instituted a $100 million cost-cutting plan that dropped employment to 123.

By 2003, the plant employed only 80 people, with subsequent cutbacks dropping employment to 40 by 2004.

Covington, Kentucky-based Ashland Inc. purchased Hercules, including the Hattiesburg site, in 2008. The following year, operations ceased at the Hattiesburg plant.

In early 2011, investigations uncovered several harmful contaminants that were released into the environment after the facility closed.

In May 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order to Hercules, requiring the company to conduct on- and off-site monitoring, testing and reporting to determine the nature and extent of any environmental contamination at and from the Hattiesburg facility.

The EPA ordered the plant to submit a written work plan that included sampling and analysis of drinking water within a 4-mile radius of the facility, and surface and sediment data of any wetlands, creeks, lakes or ditches within a half-mile of the plant.

In December 2012, sludge cleanup began at the impoundment basin.

In 2013, the City of Hattiesburg sued Hercules and Ashland, alleging groundwater contamination from the closed factory may have leached into the city’s water supply. The suit also alleged Hercules improperly disposed of harmful chemicals in the facility for decades - something Bush vehemently disagrees with.

“The part that I was involved in, they were extremely careful to be good stewards of the environment,” he said. “They did everything they could to keep from polluting anything. They spent millions of dollars in pollution abatement, and they kept improving it - they didn’t just dump stuff in the river.”

In response, Hercules filed a motion to dismiss part of the lawsuit, stating the plant had only discovered one significant migration of contaminants off-site - a groundwater plume that the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality deemed to not be a health risk to the community.

In March, Hercules officials - under the supervision of the EPA and MDEQ - began the decommissioning of and sludge removal from the impoundment basin and other tanks used as part of the plant’s wastewater system.

“The impoundment basin has about 4,400 yards of sludge in it that we have to treat and dispose of,” remediation project manager Tim Hassett said. “Some of that sludge is hazardous by EPA definition.”

Hassett expects the project, which also includes cleanup of a tank across the street from the plant, to be finished by the end of September. Demolition of the remaining buildings also is under way and is expected to be done by the end of this year.


Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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