By Ryan Walker, Senior Director, Federal Government Affairs, BP America
Tucked away in a heavily wooded area just outside Charleston, BP’s Cooper River Chemicals plant has been operating safely in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry for nearly 40 years.
The chemical plant — which is America’s largest producer of purified terephthalic acid, a raw material used to manufacture polyester — occupies just 500 acres of Cooper River’s sprawling 6,000-acre site. Surrounding the facility’s operating units are dense forests and wetlands with a rich ecosystem of plants and animals indigenous to the region.
BP’s efforts to conserve and nurture the wildlife around Cooper River are a major part of the site’s day-to-day operations.
“We focus on ecosystem management as a whole, rather than concentrating on any one particular species,” says Ernie Nelson, the facility’s land manager. “At Cooper River, using that concept gives us not only a healthy forest, but also healthy populations of remarkably diverse wildlife within it.”
Cooper River is home to an array of animal and tree species, including longleaf pines, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, wood ducks, bluebirds and federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Nelson says the facility uses conservation programs such as controlled burns to help protect the forest ecosystem from invasive species and to restore and improve the habitat’s biodiversity.
“The longleaf pine community has components that are so interconnected, if any one of those elements is removed, the whole ecosystem starts falling apart,” says Nelson. “For many plants and animals within this community, prescribed fire helps stimulate growth.”
The forests and wetlands also serve as a vast outdoor classroom and nature preserve for nearby schools and community organizations, including search-and-rescue dog training teams and veterans groups. The site regularly hosts field trips for students from the College of Charleston’s environmental studies program and budding wildlife biologists from area high schools, as well as local scout troops.
“By visiting Cooper River, the students get to see firsthand what corporate environmental stewardship really looks like,” says Nelson. The site has earned recognition from the Wildlife Habitat Council, the National Land Conservation Conference and other nature groups.
Cooper River’s award-winning record of environmental stewardship is exemplified through its employees’ efforts to maintain its scenic beauty and manage its abundant wildlife. A number of employees are involved in the facility’s deer management program, which aims to control the population of white-tailed deer in order to protect the broader ecosystem.
“We look at managing the deer from a responsibility aspect,” says Nelson. “Deer have few natural predators today, and they can create havoc for an ecosystem because they are selective eaters and pick on different plant species.”
To manage the deer, BP employees hunt on property and donate meat from harvested animals to the local Meals on Wheels program. Nelson estimates that the site contributes about 200-300 pounds of venison each year.
“It’s a win-win, because we’re controlling the deer density, which in turn, helps conserve native species diversity, and we’re giving back to the community,” says Nelson. “We’re also creating a recreational perk for our employees.”
In addition to offering educational and conservation programs, the site’s lush grounds provide BP staff with opportunities for hiking, biking and fishing. The property also has a boat ramp, camping areas and a recreational facility for employees to use.