KALAMA — Workers at the Bennu Glass plant have chiseled away tons hardened glass from the crippled melter of the wine bottle plant here, and a new furnace and 100 employees should be ready to restart the shuttered plant in July, company officials say.
"After being in a holding pattern for two years, we now are working feverishly on a number of things," said Bennu CEO Jerry Lemieux.
Most important is the replacement of the 400-ton electric melter, or furnace. Using an electric-powered furnace was considered risky technology, and failure of the unit ultimate brought the plant down shortly after the Pennsylvania-based Cameron family opened it on Port of Kalama property.
Bennu hired contractor National Machinery Co. in January to jackhammer more than a dozen feet of solid glass left to harden in the melter when the Camerons abruptly shut down in September 2009. The melter had been crippled by a massive molten glass leak in January 2009, and the company struggled to produce colored glass before finally shuttering the $109 million plant.
Last month, Bennu's contractors hauled away chunks of glass that filled the 400-ton melter. A disposal company will determine whether it can be recycled. Large amounts of the glass were contaminated with other materials and likely can't be recycled, according to Lemieux.
On Wednesday, contract workers were busy disassembling the metal bracketing that supported the two-story electric melter, which was shaped like an octagon. A new, square-shaped liquid oxygen-fueled melter, a proven method which heats molten glass to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit, will be installed in May, according to Nicole Weir, Lemieux's assistant.
About nine to 10 contract employees daily are working at the site with 10 full-time Bennu employees, Weir said. The company expects to do the bulk of its hiring in April through the WorkSource office in Kelso.
Bennu bought the plant at a bankruptcy auction in March 2010 for $64.8 million. The company announced last fall that it had secured the $40 million to $50 million in loans to start operating.
Bennu, which plans to produce 100 million bottles a year, is owned by New York-based financial firm Medley Capital, which has invested about $30 million in the plant's revival.
Lemieux is traveling along the West Coast, mostly in California, to secure deals with customers. The company plans to sell primarily to small wineries, which often import bottles because they can't find enough domestic supply, Lemieux said.
The company is moving forward with other smaller projects, such as commissioning other equipment and building a warehouse to store liquid oxygen, Lemieux said.
"It seems to be coming out okay so far," he said.