Cabot Norit in Marshall has 'positive story to tell'
March 12, 2017 at 4 a.m.
When General Manager Gavin Barrack arrived in Marshall three years ago to take the lead of the local Cabot Norit Activated Carbon facility, he noticed there was one problem predominantly facing the plant.
"Many people when they were first asked about what we do here would say, 'oh, that's the ammunition factory,'" Barrack said. "We have nothing to do with ammunition. Though we've been here since 1921 it was clear to me a lot of the community didn't know what we did."
Barrack said since then, he has been focused on informing and educating the general public.
"One of the things I felt after being here a short time is that we didn't interact with the community as much as we could and arguably should," Barrack said. "We wanted to educate the community."
One of the ways Barrack has reached out to the community is through the Community Advisory Panel, comprised of 15 community leaders, which meets every other month.
"I get the chance to educate them about what we do and they get a chance to tell me how the community feels," Barrack said. "They are a conduit from the community to me and they are a conduit from me to the community."
In part of educating the public, Barrack has become skilled at communicating the business of Cabot Norit in simple terms and analogies.
"We're taking lignite coal and instead of burning it taking it and creating energy. The materials are being used to purify water and the atmosphere. … We have a positive story to tell and it's important for people to understand that," Barrack said. "Twenty miles south of here on Hwy. 59, we have a mine, which employs 29 employees who are extracting the material. When we finish, we put everything back and arguably the area looks better than when we started.
"The analogy I like to use is if it were a sponge cake, I take the top off, I take the icing out of the middle and I put the top back on," Barrack said. "There is a lignite seam that is about 20 to 30 meters under the ground. It's only about a meter to a meter and a half thick. We go in, take it out and just put everything back in and no one even knows we were there."
Again, Barrack takes the simplest of metaphors to describe the impact of the process.
"We take that lignite and we activate, putting it through high-temperature furnaces and we create, in effect, a sponge," Barrack said. "A teaspoon of activated carbon has the active area of a soccer field. The amount of absorption capacity that can pull in impurities is related to that active area.
"That's what I feel proud about in terms of this facility and the activated carbon business within Cabot; we're producing material that cleans up and purifies different applications and industries," Barrack said. "The predominant one for this site is that we basically sell a lot of our activated carbon into our water market so that we can help purify drinking water for municipalities throughout the United States."
Cabott Norit's activated carbon is also used in the reduction of harmful mercury emissions.
"We sell and supply a lot of our activated carbon to coal-fired utilities across the states. Basically, it is used to reduce mercury emissions, which has to be good for the whole United States," Barrack said. "Our activated carbon gets injected into the chimney stacks of coal-fired utilities and grabs any mercury that is in the emission and stops it from going into the atmosphere."
Layoffs and rehires
It was this application that led Cabot Norit to make headlines in 2015 as plant announced it would be cutting back its workforce by nearly 24 percent.
Cabot Corp. had planned to be in a position to supply enough of the filtering material for an expected quadrupling of demand by coal-fired utilities in coming years. But, the plan changed in late June, when the Supreme Court ruled the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not properly consider the costs of the its first limits on mercury, arsenic and acid gases emitted by coal-fired power plants, known as mercury and air toxics.
"When we had to unfortunately carry out the reduction in force (RIF) back in October of 2015, that was because of the uncertainty in and around the Clean Air Act and some of the environmental regulations - we really didn't know which way they were going to go," Barrack said. "Clearly as a business, we needed to make a decision. … We cut back on production and we had to cut back on some staff … but in April 2016, the legislation went ahead. That has enabled me to bring people back and increase production.
"I still reflect on that; to save 124 jobs, I had to let 38 people go," Barrack said, stating the facility currently has 140 employees. "Having let those people go I can say now we have brought back 16 of those people and I am in the process of recruiting further."
Another critical part of the Cabot Norit story, Barrack said, is the high priority safety takes in the workplace.
"We are taking the whole safety culture on this facility to a different level," Barrack said. "We have improved our controls of safety, our hazard recognition, our communication on safety and our life-critical safety standards, as we call them, to make sure everybody on this site, including anybody who visits, goes home safe and sound."
Nowhere is that more clear than the large sign, marked "Principles of Operation," on the way into the plant.
"We came up with the principles of operation about two years ago. Everybody on site got to tell me and my senior leadership team what was important to them about safety," Barrack said. "We took everybody's comments and we distilled them down to their common themes, like adherence to programs and procedure, housekeeping and making sure you are looking after colleagues and turned those into our principles of operation."
Barrack said thanks in part to the principles of operation, the Marshall plant soon hopes to celebrate 365 days without any significant injuries.
"If something goes wrong or there's something we're not happy with, we can generally turn to the principles and say, maybe we didn't stick to that today," Barrack said, summing up his story of Cabot Norit by saying, "I do believe if you can get your safety right and your quality right, the rest will follow."
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