An explosion at a chemical plant in Leverkusen, about a 30-minute drive from the western German city of Cologne, has killed at least two persons and has left many more injured. Experts say the blast probably released toxic compounds into the surrounding area.
The tragedy has left many wondering what is a massive chemical complex doing so close to one of Germany’s biggest cities, in the first place. In fact, other major German cities such as Mannheim and Leipzig also have large chemical complexes in their vicinity.
The chemical industry in the Rhineland — a region of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia — which includes the chemical park in Leverkusen, is one of the largest hubs for the industry in Europe. The region has over 260 chemical companies employing more than 70,000 people. The firms are often clustered together in so-called chemical parks.
From Wesseling in the south to Dormagen in the north: Global companies such as Bayer, ExxonMobil Chemical, Ineos, Covestro, Lyondellbasell and Lanxess are located within a few kilometers of Cologne, a city with a population of over 1 million people.
To understand how a major city and a chemical park can exist in such close proximity, one has to look back at the long history of the Rhineland as an industrial powerhouse.
The Rhine played a decisive role. The river’s usefulness as a commercial transport route ensured that many chemical companies set up their bases in the region at the end of the 19th century.
The city of Leverkusen even owes its name to the industry: In 1860, chemist Carl Leverkus moved his factory from Wermelskirchen to the nearby small town of Wiesdorf on the Rhine. Less than 20 years later, the predecessor to the international chemical group Bayer, Farbenfabriken vorm. Friedr. Bayer, also moved to Wiesdorf from Elberfeld, which had become too small for the company’s needs. Thanks to Leverkus’s factory, all the important facilities needed for production were already available on the banks of the Rhine.
The beginnings: Production of chemicals in Elberfeld in 1888
In order to ensure that workers had a short commute to work, housing estates were built in the immediate vicinity of the factory. Soon the surrounding villages grew into towns, which eventually became today’s Leverkusen. This is why the city’s residential areas are still located in the immediate proximity of the factories today. At the same time, the growth of the industry led to the creation of more jobs, which led to an influx of people into cities like Cologne.
During the economic miracle of the post-war years, the corporations located in the Rhineland grew considerably. Around the turn of the century, several chemical parks emerged from the restructuring of what had previously been individual chemical plants and operations. The idea was to combine the production activities of different companies at a single site, promote collaboration and create the necessary infrastructure – with success.
“The German chemical park model is an export hit,” says Ernst Grigat, who headed the Chempark with its plants in Leverkusen, Dormagen and Krefeld-Uerdingen for more than ten years. In China, more than a thousand chemical parks have been built on the German model, says Grigat, who holds a doctorate in Chemistry. This is because the concentration of expertise and resources enables better safety and environmental management.
Location of Chemical Park sites along the Rhine
The Rhineland also offers the chemical companies based there a competitive advantage. The density of the chemical parks allows the firms to cooperate with each other, Grigat says.
“There is a very strong relationship between the Rhineland plants, between Dormagen, Leverkusen and Wesseling,” he told DW.
To that end, the site has access to seaports, is located at a main European transport intersection and is connected to a unique pipeline system through which 50% of all materials can be transported.
“The people of Cologne may not know this,” Grigat said. “But Cologne is the chemical capital of Germany, perhaps even of Europe.”
A fire burns at the Chemical Park in Leverkusen in 2016
But isn’t it dangerous to have chemicals being produced so close to cities? Not necessarily, says Grigat.
Of course, products created in the chemical industry could be dangerous. But a major advantage of the chemical parks is that they have the necessary safety infrastructure in place, such as fire departments that are specially trained in handling hazardous substances, he said.
As a result, new companies are preferring to set up bases in chemical parks to ensure they are legally protected. Factories that were once located in an industrial area, but are now suddenly in the middle of the city due to urban growth, also prefer to move to a chemical park.
These parks are often planned at such a large scale that safety standards can be maintained despite the proximity to residential areas, Grigat said.
The article has been adapted from the original German
There’s no corporation in the chemical industry that has bigger revenues or a larger market cap than BASF. Sales in 2014 amounted to a hefty 74.3 billion euros ($79.9 billion). The company has 113,000 employees in more than 80 countries. The corporate HQ is in western Germany at Ludwigshafen am Rhein (pictured). BASF has more than 390 production sites around the world.
BASF was founded on April 6, 1865, by Friedrich Engelhorn, under the name of Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik (later BASF). Engelhorn had already been running a factory for several years that supplied the city of Mannheim with gas for its street lamps. A byproduct was coal tar. Engelhorn decided to found BASF to produce tar-based and aniline dyes for the textile industry.
Since the turn of the 20th century, thanks to RD by German chemists Fritz Haber und Carl Bosch, it has been possible to produce ammonia on an industrial scale. That’s a key ingredient for both fertilizer and explosives. During the first world war, BASF produced explosives, gunpowder, and poison gas for the German military.
The European economy pace of recovery after the first world war was rather slow. The German chemical industry’s main firms had already collaborated loosely since 1916, in support of the German war effort. In 1925, BASF fused with five other firms, including Hoechst and Bayer, to form I.G. Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft (I.G. Farben). Pictured: I.G. Farben’s then-HQ in Frankfurt (Main).
I.G. Farben collaborated with the Nazi regime. The company made extensive use of forced labor, including concentration camp prisoners. Pictured: The I.G. Farben facility at Auschwitz-Monowitz, where Zyklon B poison gas was produced. The gas was originally meant to serve as an insecticide, but the Nazis ended up using it in the death camps to murder millions of human beings.
Allied troops occupied I.G. Farben’s Ludwighafen factory in March 1945. It had already been largely destroyed by aerial bombing. In the same year, the four occupying powers confiscated the company’s entire capital stock. In the Soviet occupation zone, the company’s factories were dismantled and shipped East, or nationalized. In November 1945, the Allied control council dissolved I.G. Farben.
On January 30, 1952, eleven companies were created out of the ruined legacy of I.G. Farben, among them several future major-league players: Agfa, Bayer AG, Hoechst AG, and BASF. Initially, BASF focused mostly on making plastics. Over the decades that followed, BASF broadened its product range and built more and more production facilities around the world. It became a global company.
BASF’s product range is huge: Paints and varnishes, styrofoam, insulation materials, medicines, light stabilizers, vehicle battery materials, adhesives and more. The company invests heavily in research – for example in organic solar cells (pictured). The company’s 2014 research budget was around 1.8 billion euros.
A large fraction of BASF’s sales consist of chemicals and production materials for other industries, including construction, pharmaceutical, textile, and automobile industries. BASF materials used in the renovation of London’s Underground (pictured), for example, include tunnel boring machines, robotic machines for rock-wall support construction, spray concrete and fire protection coatings.
Public awareness of BASF’s wide range of businesses is limited. Few people know, for example, that BASF is not only the world’s biggest chemical industry company, but also one of Germany’s biggest wine sellers. The company sold about 900,000 bottles in 2013 alone. The cellars of the wine sales subsidiary, more than 100 years old, feature more than 2,000 different wines.