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A Look Back: Reporting on the Chemical Industry in the 1990s

June 26, 2024
What does a rant from RAF, chicken droppings and adultery have to do with the chemical industry? Seán Ottewell shares some of the more interesting stories of his time as a chemical industry reporter during the 1990s.

Reed beds were a hot topic in the mid-90s.

I’ve been covering the chemical industry as a reporter for more than 30 years. I took a trip down memory lane and thought I’d share some of the more unique stories from when I worked for The Chemical Engineer during the 1990s.
 
One of my earliest experiences reporting on the chemical industry involved receiving an earful from the Royal Air Force (RAF).
 
Operation Desert Storm began Jan. 16, 1991, almost a year after I started working for The Chemical Engineer magazine in the UK. 
 
A TV in the office kept us abreast of developing news; for younger CP readers here, smartphones and the Internet were not available then. 
 
One report mentioned that RAF jets destined for Kuwait were to undergo a very quick repaint from their typical northern European camouflage schemes of dark green, dark sea grey and light aircraft grey to something less conspicuous for desert action.  
 
Editors at The Chemical Engineer thought it would be interesting to find out what sort of coating was being used.
 
So, I phoned the RAF press office. 
 
The PR man could have said something along the lines of it being a desert sand alkaline-removable temporary finish (ARTF) paint with a distinctive pink tint. 
 
Instead, he shouted, “How the bloody hell should I know? I’m not a bloody decorator!”
 

Hot Topic Reader Reaction

The biggest reader response I had followed a report on plans for a new power station to be fueled by chicken droppings.
 
It was the first of its kind in the UK, so we were keen to learn more about the combustion and odor abatement processes planned for the facility. 
 
When it came to illustrating the article, the magazine’s designer let us take some photos of her pet hens.
 
The response was astonishing, beginning with letters from that cross-section of the chemical engineering community who happened to be poultry enthusiasts. 
 
They pointed out that the hens in the picture were clearly free-range and, therefore, not representative of the battery hens that would be used to provide the new plant’s fuel. There was some debate about the breed of the hens, too. 
 
This, in turn, evolved into a passionate and protracted correspondence from chemical engineers debating ethical issues involved with operating a plant that relied on battery farming for its fuel. 
 

Eavesdropping on Adultery

The European chemical industry enjoyed a bit of a boom in the mid-1990s with all sorts of interesting investments being announced. We thought our readers would be interested in the thoughts of the chairmen/CEOs of the major E&C companies bringing these projects to life. 
 
One invited me to lunch at a restaurant near his office in London. He was happy for me to record the conversation with my mini-cassette recorder (the same model is currently available on vintage and retro electronic goods sites).
 
Back in the office, I realized the recorder had been pointing away from our table to a neighboring one and had captured a couple planning illicit weekends away from their respective spouses. 
 
Separating the front-end engineering design (FEED) talk from the adultery-planning session proved to be a bit of a struggle, so I had to check back (by fax) with the CEO for some clarifications.
 
He phoned me a day or two later and said: “I have no problem with the information in the interview, but my wife is wondering if there’s any chance you could rewrite it to make me sound a bit more intelligent, please?”
 

Solid Belief in Reed Beds 

Reed beds were a hot topic in the mid-90s, as interest grew in their potential use alongside existing wastewater treatment processes.
 
I took a trip to North East England to see one in action at an ICI production site. The company’s expert was pleased with the early results but mentioned that other companies had failed to grasp how they could, or should, be used.
 
He cited a recent call from an engineer at a steel plant whose reed bed had a problem. It turned out that the company had discharged molten slag directly into the reed bed, which promptly set solid. Did the ICI expert have any ideas about what to do? 
 
“Jackhammers,” he replied. “Lots and lots of jackhammers.”
 

All Politics are Local

A chemical engineer specializing in safety was running for council in his local town in South Wales. 
 
His main campaign issue was the poor safety standards at the nearby Pembroke Cracking Company facility — jointly owned by Texaco and Gulf Oil — which recently suffered a major explosion and fire. The subsequent investigation blamed failures in management, equipment and control standards for the blast.
 
He found the whole campaigning experience very disillusioning, telling me, “I said my piece on the doorstep of a man whose whole family worked at the plant. He replied, as did many others in the same situation, ‘That’s all very well, but who’s going to repair the potholes in our roads?’” 
 
He never ran again.
About the Author

Seán Ottewell | Editor-at-Large

Seán Crevan Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor-at-Large. Seán earned his bachelor's of science degree in biochemistry at the University of Warwick and his master's in radiation biochemistry at the University of London. He served as Science Officer with the UK Department of Environment’s Chernobyl Monitoring Unit’s Food Science Radiation Unit, London. His editorial background includes assistant editor, news editor and then editor of The Chemical Engineer, the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ twice monthly technical journal. Prior to joining Chemical Processing in 2012 he was editor of European Chemical Engineer, European Process Engineer, International Power Engineer, and European Laboratory Scientist, with Setform Limited, London.

He is based in East Mayo, Republic of Ireland, where he and his wife Suzi (a maths, biology and chemistry teacher) host guests from all over the world at their holiday cottage in East Mayo

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