The Donges refinery is now the second largest in France. The result of a long industrial history which dates back to the American presence during the First World War.
An oil activity inherited from the Sammies
On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress overwhelmingly voted for entry into the war. Less than three months later, on June 26, the first contingents landed in the port of Saint-Nazaire, in this case the 1st American infantry division, just created. And these first "Sammies" don't come alone.
Impressive logistics is being set up around the nine camps set up in the port city where soldiers use its precious infrastructure, in particular the workshops of the Chantiers de la Loire which will be used to assemble hundreds of locomotives arriving in spare parts from the United States. Shells will also be produced there thanks to the Trignac forges.
Stores and storage warehouses, marshalling yard and new rail tracks, creation of a pumping station in Trignac ... The major works are launched, and it is essentially black soldiers and prisoners of war who are tackling the task.
In Donges, "the Americans established a small camp, near the Mariais, on the edge of the major communication route from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire", says Émile Gabory in the book Les enfants du pays Nantais et le XI 'corps d'armée (1923). There is “a park for asphyxiating gases, at the limit of Donges and Montoir, near the Loire, and a larger camp not far from the town. They created a railroad through the meadows of the Loire, began a second whose work was interrupted by the Armistice. "
Of course, the railroad already passed by there. The Loire, the train, bare land near Donges with less than 3,000 inhabitants - workers, farmers and fishermen - everything was there to set up a logistics base here.
In other words, a wharf on the Loire and an oil depot from several reservoirs to supply the front.
"The purchases of land on the banks of the Loire were made from October 1917 to December 1918 in the name of the company Paul Paix & Ci", for an area of 47 ha ", can we read in the archives of Armand Morvan, mayor de Donges from 1945 to 1959 (he was also deputy director of the refinery).
Oil activity will continue to develop in Donges after the war. Paul Paix became the Western Petroleum Products Company (COPP) in 1919.
The foundations of a globalized port are laid
In 1919, the site of the Western Petroleum Products Company had ten tanks, mixing facilities, submerged oil pipelines and several wharves. The Americans helped lay the foundations for a globalized port: in addition to these oil installations, a coal activity was born in Donges during the war, because the port of Saint-Nazaire, where the ore arrives by train, is engorged by the influx of materials and tools during the conflict.
Finally, the coal station of Donges will be abandoned, because it overshadows the activity of the port of Saint-Nazaire which regains its capabilities after the war. Suffice to say that the creation of a commercial port bringing together all the activities downstream and upstream of the estuary is not yet in the minds! It was not until 1966 that the autonomous port was born, and it is at Montoir-de-Bretagne that a coal terminal will be installed.
Either way, the oil industry is booming in Donges. The first tanker docked there in 1919. The Uta Carbonne brings 7,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil from the United States, stored in tanks along the Loire. The British Empress, in October of the same year, brought 8,000 tonnes of petrol from Abaden, Iran, where an oil complex was created in 1910.
In 1921, the Société Générale des Huiles de Pétrole (SGHP) was created "by the merger of various companies with common interests: Société navale de l'Ouest, Anglo-persian oil and Société Georges Lesueur & fils", writes Armand Morvan. The site will move up a gear.
Refinery kicks off in the early 1930s
Two factories are created. But development is stopped with the entry into war of France. In 1940, the Germans seized the installations which became the target of the Allies.
On March 30, 1928, the National Assembly passed the law that marked the birth of the French oil refining industry. Two factories were then established next to the SGHP warehouses.
The Society of Petroleum Consumers, comprising shipping and railway companies, was founded in 1932 and brought into service, on July 27, state-of-the-art American refining equipment: the Foster-Wheeler battery. Then in 1933, the Alsatian Pechelbronn (manufacturer of lubricating oils) moved to Donges.
The Pechelbronn-Ouest factory started a topping-cracking-reforming unit in 1935, while the Société des consommateurs de petroleum installed a second battery.
The entry into war will stop the development of the site. On June 8, 1940, the last load of crude arrived at Donges aboard the Krosforn. On June 18, while General de Gaulle launched his appeal from London, the Belgian companies Consumer and Pechelbronn stopped the installations and prepared to burn the reserves, on the orders of the French army, but they would not have time : June 21, German soldiers enter Saint-Nazaire, then Donges. They immediately requisition the tanks and the refining installations.
In 1941, several Royal Air Force (RAF) attacks partially destroyed the oil installations: in May, four fuel oil tanks were burned; in September, a filling station was destroyed, and a new attack occurred on December 12, led by four English torpedo bombers.
The town bordering the Loire estuary unfortunately did not finish with the war. Until 1944, Donges was the target of nine Allied bombings and a German ...
In 1939, the site processed 320,000 tonnes of crude. In 1949, after the merger between the companies Pechelbronn and Consommateurs which became the French Refineries of Petroleum in the Atlantic (RFPA), 677,000 tonnes were processed, and 1.3 million tonnes in 1952.
This industrial development will encourage the construction of a "hard" market town 1 km to the north, in the middle of agricultural land. To speed up the relocation of its employees, the director of the refinery at the time, Jacques Riboud, created the Company for Studies and Equipment for Construction (Seec), and launched construction of the Trélagot district with the help "Beavers".
"It worked so well that when Donges was finished, it made me sick to scatter this company. So I asked the board of directors of Antar to take over the Seec, Jacques Riboud will tell later. That's how I became an urban designer builder. ” Because following this experience, Jacques Riboud became an urban planner, creating several new neighborhoods on a human scale, especially in the Paris region, in the 1960s!
At the refinery, modernization is underway with the installation of new infrastructures and new techniques: atmospheric distillation, refining of lubricating oils, separation by centrifugation, installation of the catalytic cracker Thermo-for, recovery of gases, installation of pretreatment units ...
In a few decades, the small fishing village has therefore known an atypical destiny. "There are only two cities in France that were displaced after the war: Oradour-sur-Glane and Donges", recalls François Chéneau, the current mayor of the town, passionate about history. But the town of Donges also has the distinction of having been moved twice!
The refinery has grown steadily
Decades of economic development have ended up mixing the fate of the small town with that of the petrochemical site.
The Antar-Pétroles de l'Atlantique company was created at the end of 1954, by the merger of Antar, specialized in the sale of automotive lubricants, and French Atlantic petroleum refineries. Two years later, it was the Suez Canal crisis: Egypt blocked the canal, cutting off oil supplies. The activity of the refinery fell suddenly, fuel was rationed in France from the end of November. And to make matters worse, a violent fire broke out at the refinery on December 31, 1956, causing significant damage!
At the turn of the 1960s, the site diversified into the petrochemical industry. The facilities are modernized with the Houdry catalytic reformer, the creation of the aromatic hydrocarbon extraction unit, another vacuum distillation unit, and the large-capacity topping site west (Tgco) is launched.
In 1965, Antar built the Vern-sur-Seiche refinery near Rennes, which would be linked to Donges by a 93 km oil pipeline. Another oil pipeline was built to link the Cheviré thermal power plant, and a new topping-reforming unit was commissioned in 1971. Six years later, Antar and Elf-Erap merged.
In the lap of the Elf Aquitaine group, Donges continues its development. This is the era of automation and new units are emerging with the Grand Donges project: DEE, the only energy-saving distillation in France, catalytic cracker, visbreaker, isomerization, or even regenerative reformer were put into service between 1982 and 1994.
In 2000, Elf and Total merge. The group became Total SA in May 2003. The second French refinery now covers 350 ha. Admittedly, it "pushed" the town of Donges further north to continue its expansion and cut off its inhabitants from their link to the river. "But the Dongeois know what they owe the refinery, thanks to tax revenues, in particular," said the current mayor, François Chéneau. Breton families from the north and east of France have also settled permanently in Donges. "The refinery is a constraint and sometimes a nuisance, but over time it has fostered a dynamic social and associative life."
Tomorrow? The refinery is to create a desulfurization unit and another to produce hydrogen by 2021 near the railway line. Its future depends on the deviation from the railway, it is a fact.