EDITORIAL February-22-2017

Go for win with N.J. asphalt plant on the edge | Editorial

The following editorial originally appearedhere in the South Jersey Times.

Rumor has it that a Paulsboro business that employs about 100 people is about to announce that it will shut down. But, operators of the Axeon Asphalt Refinery have not yet confirmed or denied that they’re shutting the doors.

It’s good to see, then, that state legislators who serve the area have taken an early, proactive and public role in trying to save the facility and its jobs. Last week, they met with concerned workers.

On Jan. 18, the Reuters news service, citing industry sources as well as Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), reported that the plant, which can refine 75,000 barrels a day of oil, would close. Like gasoline, asphalt is a byproduct of petroleum refining.

A month can be an eternity in reacting to potential job-loss situations, but informing the community about BEFORE an employer exit is a done, irreversible deal, marks a big improvement for Burzichelli and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester.) Too often, South Jersey lawmakers, as well as county and municipal officials, have responded ineffectively to business shutdowns. They swoop in too late to offer anything but services for soon-to-be-displaced workers. Burzichelli told Reuters in the Jan. 18 article that he was already working on saving the plant and its jobs.

This asphalt refinery and adjacent terminal has a history of revolving ownership. It is probably better known as the Citgo, and then the NuStar, refinery. According to Reuters, current operator Axeon Specialty Products is owned by a New York City-based hedge fund that recently sold off several similar plants to Associated Asphalt of Virginia. The Paulsboro plant was excluded from the reported sale.

Our own “hedge” — and we use the term in the broadest, non-venture-capitalist way — views an asphalt provider in one of the East Coast’s largest metropolitan areas as a “buy.” Note the recent administration change in Washington. President Donald Trump has frequently boasted of plans to jump-start work on our country’s crumbling infrastructure. The asphalt should soon be flowing, big-time, for roads and airport runways.

“Where are you gonna get the asphalt?” Sweeney asked at the meeting with employees and their union leaders last week. “Why the hell do we need to go to Ohio or anywhere else?”

So, that means there’s a chance to save the refinery, and it’s a lot better than the one-in-a-million odds that Lauren Holly gave Jim Carrey in that famous exchange from the movie “Dumb & Dumber.”

Let’s see how persuasive our officials can be in convincing current or potential owners that a profitable asphalt plant represents a “win” with dividends for both investors and jobholders. Although the State of New Jersey has some tax incentives available, this shouldn’t be a heavy lift that requires giving away the store.

This time, maybe, help arrived in the nick of time. If there has been an undisclosed decision to shutter Aexon Asphalt, it can be reversed before it causes pain to local families and the economy. We’re watching with as much optimism as Carrey’s character, lovelorn Lloyd Christmas (“So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?!”) expressed in the movie.