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No Longer The Lab Of The World

U.S. chemical plants are closing in droves as production heads abroad

In 1958, Hampshire Chemical Corp. opened a plant in Nashua, N.H. Over the next 46 years, the 41-acre complex alchemized hydrocarbon molecules into millions of tons of surfactants, the stuff that gives shampoo its cleansing power. Last fall, though, the facility's long run ended. Dow Chemical Co. (DOW ), which acquired the property in 1997, shut it down. For Dow, it was another has-been operation. But for the nation, it's more than that. Chemical production itself is becoming a has-been industry.

Only a decade ago the U.S. was the world's top spot for making chemicals. Not only was it the largest market but it also had facilities that boasted the latest technology and the best knowhow. Most important, U.S. plants had a natural advantage, thanks to an abundant supply of cheap natural gas, a building block for plastics, fertilizers, and even pharmaceuticals. Today, none of that is true. Bigger, faster-growing markets are overseas. New facilities in the developing world are often as sophisticated and productive as those in America, if not more so. And in a crippling reversal, U.S. natural gas prices are the highest in the world. For the U.S., the likely results are less investment, fewer jobs, and fewer scientific discoveries.