Corporate sustainability: a clean new start for an old refinery

A former refinery site is being developed into an innovation park. The IN Campus project is a chance for Audi and the city of Ingolstadt show how corporate sustainability works in practice — and how much time, work, and hard thinking is needed to make one of the most extensive ecological rehabilitation projects in Germany a success.

07/09/2019 Reading Time: 4 min

Mitarbeiter an Air-Sparging-Anlage

Directly next to the soccer stadium in Ingolstadt, where the FC Ingolstadt soccer team holds its games on the weekend, a black Audi Q5 drives across dusty ground. Only seconds after a caterpillar has just evened the rough ground. Large chunks of earth fly up against the window, brown mud spatters on the clean paint. Andrea Robien, responsible for soil protection in Audi’s Environment Department, sits behind the steering wheel. She takes a smooth right turn, rolls down the window and uses both hands to point to the 75-hectare landscape, which would be big enough to accommodate 200 soccer fields.

As an expert in her field, she is accompanying one of the most complex and expensive cleaning-up projects in Germany: the IN-Campus on the outskirts of Ingolstadt. This is where corporate sustainability management becomes reality. “In terms of environmental protection and sustainability, it is an absolute flagship project.”

Toxic residue: 600 million kilograms of soil cleaned

For 43 years, this site supplied the entire state of Bavaria with petroleum products on a daily basis. Located at a railroad intersection and between the largest energy consumers in Munich and Nuremberg at the time, Ingolstadt very quickly developed from a purely agricultural town into an industrial hub from 1959 onwards. But environmental damage by mankind has left its mark. Concealed deep down under the tires of the Audi Q5, some of the most toxic residues of the refinery plant are to be found in the soil. IN-Campus GmbH is now cleaning 600 million kilograms of this soil in a joint venture between the city of Ingolstadt and Audi. Effective sustainability management with which the company meets is ecological and social responsibilities.

Sustainability project for the IN Campus site
Corporate sustainability management on 75-hectare: alongside the enormous site, the soccer stadium (left) seems almost miniature.

Corporate sustainability management: a new beginning for the people, the city and the environment

This is where Audi, together with the city, will build a modern technology campus with sustainable architecture. In the first building phase, a special building for forward-looking technologies, a new vehicle safety center, a new computer center and an energy center will be set up. It’s a real renaissance for the old refinery site. “This is a highlight for any environmentalist and a commitment to the site”, says Robien. From the processing of crude oil to a center of excellence, from the past directly into the future. These days — 60 years later — innovative ideas are to the future of automobiles what petroleum was for the energy supply back then: a source of security to the region in the future, and a great step for real-life sustainability management in practice.

“Thoroughness before speed”: 1,200 exploratory drillings and 50,000 lab analyses

This fresh start is not a matter of course. Contaminated areas are often “sealed” to enclose toxic substances in the soil. Vast areas with good transport connections then lie fallow and unused in their contaminated state. Neither the environment, the people nor the city can benefit from them. Time and labor is needed to clean such areas. “Thoroughness takes precedence over speed in this case”, Robien remarks. The pollutants in the soil differ enormously. In the last few years, there have been 1,200 exploratory drillings up to a depth of 15 meters and more than 50,000 lab analyses of the different pollutants have been taken. Andrea Robien and her colleagues had to find a suitable cleaning-up method, depending on which group of physical or chemical contaminants they belonged to.

Sustainability management: cleaning toxic soil
Sustainability for ecology: "The washing machine," aka soil washing system, thoroughly cleans the soil.

Sustainability project: Using high-tech for environmental protection

And how exactly does this sustainability management work? Using a huge “washing machine,” up to 1,200 tons of soil are cleaned of their contaminants each day. The contaminated soil is brought to the surface with 33,000 steel honeycombs and washed in a so-called soil washing system, which is like a gigantic washing drum. Components of the soil, such as stones and fine sand, are cleaned in several steps with wash water until all the pollutants have been dissolved and are in the water. This is cleaned in a number of different steps and then fed back into the closed “washing machine” circuit. More than 90 percent of the soil is thus restored to its original state and can be backfilled into the pit. Less than 10 percent is properly disposed of as waste. “We try to find the best possible solutions for nature”, Robien emphasizes. This, too, is an important part of corporate sustainability.

Sustainability management: cleaning toxic soil

Sustainability for ecology: "The washing machine," aka soil washing system, thoroughly cleans the soil.

In concrete terms, that means the Ingolstadt refinery is being cleaned using a technique known as air sparging, which removes volatile contaminants. This avoids having to dig up the earth and clean it in the washing plant. Instead, straws are used. They are, of course, bigger than the ones we use for our drinks, but follow the same principle: if you blow air through a straw into your lemonade, carbon dioxide escapes and it bubbles. By using a straw, volatile contaminants in the groundwater disappear in the same way as carbon dioxide does in a drink. One cubic meter of contaminated soil vapor per second can be cleaned using this method – 10,000 people would have to blow into a straw simultaneously to achieve the same effect.

Apart from the soil itself, the groundwater in the area surrounding the former refinery in Ingolstadt is also contaminated. To make sure it does not contaminate the adjacent areas, it is collected by ten wells along a 4.5 km-long network of pipelines and cleaned in a treatment plant. This way, 210 cubic meters per hour of groundwater are treated. The water is tested in different places to see whether it is really clean. Only after these spot checks have confirmed this, is it allowed to seep back into the ground.

And then there are those quiet and peaceful moments on the terrain when you can already see that something new and good is beginning to happen. When the Audi Q5 was driving through the northern part of the site, a duck poked its head out of the crystal-clear pond at the edge of the forest. Andrea Robien smiles. “It is important for us to know that we are giving something back to nature.” Audi is leaving 15 hectares of the IN Campus site entirely to nature. Andrea Robien and her colleagues have laid the invisible foundation for future steps, which is only possible thanks to their well-planned innovations in sustainability management. Their work will already have been completed when the architects bring their visions to life on the IN Campus later on. She steers the Audi Q5 past the stadium and drives towards the washing facility.

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