Phoenix-like from the ashes

DOK_Alltagskultur_DDR__wohlstand1958_01__435dafcb34[1] An idea for this post came to me as I reread, probably for the fifth time, John LeCarre’s iconic novel “The Spy who came in from the Cold”. Set in East and West Germany during the Cold War, the novel captured conditions on the other side of the Iron Curtain, which were also described in terrifying detail in a relatively recent film  “The Lives of Others”.  It’s not that long ago that East Germany was a separate state.

Germany had been split apart in 1945, including also its vast chemical industry owned by IGFarbenindustrie, with probably more than half located in the Eastern Zone. The decal at the top is a poster telling the enslaved population that chemistry provides bread, well-being and beauty!

“Well-being” and “beauty” was not what we saw when, in the early 1990s after the Wall came down, our team of Chem Systems consultants and engineers from Dow Chemical first saw the huge Buna-Schkopau-Leuna chemical and refinery complex near Halle. Different from our domestic chemical plants, which are spotless under the Responsible Care program and where toxic wastes have long been cleaned up or treated as Superfund sites by EPA mandate, what we saw in B-S-L was shocking: We trudged though foot-thick dumps of chemical wastes that had evidently never been cleaned up, spread throughout many of the individual production units still in operation.

Fortunately, the German Government paid for essentially all of the clean-up. But it took quite a while to bring these chemical sites to competitive conditions. The large German firms , (BASF, Bayer, etc) and Dow, who jointly restored East Germany’s chemical industry, found the going difficult as a whole generation of German workers had always been employed by the worker state, where salaries were guaranteed and nobody is fired. My good friend Dieter Ambros, who had been a BASF and Henkel senior executive, retired and moved his family to Bitterfeld, another huge German chemical complex, in order to bring Western technology and working habits to this site. Labor problems and attitudes were among the greatest challenges, as noted in letters we received from Waltraude Ambros, who accompanied Dieter to help “westernize” the famous Bitterfeld chemical complex.

The 29 April-12 May issue of ICIS Chemical Business describes the progress that has made these old, inefficient, highly polluted sites among the most advanced and productive in Germany! Among the most important products are high performance tires, polyethylene encapsulating firms for the photovoltaic industry, other advanced plastic materials, lubricating base oils, crop protection chemicals,etc. Germany is a leader in solar energy development, with many firms located near Leuna in the so-called “solar valley”.  A research center in biotechnology has been opened at the Leuna site and a joint venture plant partly owned by U.S. firm Myriant is being built to make bio-based succinic acid. Chancellor Angela Merkel was present at the dedication of the new research center.

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