The Cooper River chemical plant, located in a picturesque wilderness on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina, opened for business in 1978 as an Amoco facility, but the history of the area’s commerce and industry dates much further back.
John Pinto, an electrical engineer at the plant, is a native of South Carolina and familiar with the site’s past. “The plant sits on what were once two Civil War plantations, where the owners grew rice in the summer months and, during the winter, they made bricks in kilns located on the property,” he says. “Charleston has a history of brick making going back to the 1600s.” Indeed, remnants of the kilns can still be found on the property.
Bricks are no longer made at Cooper River, but the BP chemical plant still makes something fundamental to modern life, purified terephthalic acid, or PTA.
PTA – a BP-invented chemical feedstock – is a key building block for polyester plastics used in clothing, home textiles, carpets, plastic bottles and thousands more everyday items. The plant has the capacity to generate about 1.5 million tons of PTA each year – enough to make more than a billion children’s backpacks.
The facility is celebrating its 40th anniversary by implementing a $200 million modernization project that is boosting its production of PTA by 10% and now enables BP to make the feedstock more efficiently, with less energy and lower carbon (see below).
Cooper River has a very loyal workforce. More than a dozen employees have been at the plant since it opened. One of them is David Cornelius, who started as a contractor in 1978 and was hired by Amoco in 1981. Reflecting on those early days, he says: “It was a great-paying job ($4.30 per hour) when I started, and so I knew I could stay here.”
But, it’s more than just a comfortable wage that has kept him at the facility all these years and he explains his pride in being a mentor and teacher to new hires.
“My biggest accomplishment is seeing other operators that I’ve trained succeed, either by moving up the ladder or having the skills to troubleshoot problems to keep the plant running at two in the morning,” he says.
Maintenance coordinator Moses Frost is another long-time employee, having joined the plant straight from high school in 1978. “I have always liked the family environment here,” he says. “It is the kind of place where it’s easy to work for 40 years.”
When younger employees ask him for advice, he usually tells them to learn as much as possible. “Then, apply your knowledge daily and lead by example, and, just as importantly, enjoy your job,” he says .
The chemical plant’s physical footprint only covers a small portion of the acreage that makes up the Cooper River site and BP’s employees work hard to preserve the rich ecosystem of surrounding woods and wetlands that are home to turkeys, white-tailed deer, wood ducks and bluebirds.
“We take enormous pride in our environmental stewardship and our commitment to safe, reliable operations,” says John Harvey, plant manager. “We feel lucky to live and work in such a beautiful part of the country, and we feel a personal duty to protect our employees, our business partners and the local wilderness.”
Indeed, Cooper River has received recognition for its environmental programmes from the Wildlife Habitat Council, the National Land Conservation Conference and other nature groups.
BP also contributes to the community around Cooper River by supporting local projects, such as providing funds for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education programmes and helping military veterans.
Cooper River and the nearby community have grown and prospered over the past 40 years, says Harvey. “I am confident that this plant and its people will continue to play a positive and important role in this region’s life and its economy for many years to come.”
Cooper River’s commitment to the environment goes well beyond its local surroundings, though. Through implementation of the modernization project, the facility has cut the amount of electricity it buys from the grid by 40% and slashed CO2 emissions by up to 110,000 tons per year, significantly reducing the plant’s carbon footprint.
Eric Samuelson, maintenance and engineering director, was involved with the modernization programme from the beginning and says the facility is consuming much less power than before by using waste heat to generate steam that is fed into a turbine to generate electricity. “And that is where a significant piece of this energy efficiency comes from,” he says. “Our carbon footprint is much smaller.”
In addition, Cooper River will be able to supply the US plastic industry with PTAir Neutral, the world’s first certified carbon-neutral PTA, which uses carbon offsets, such as reforestation projects, to help customers to meet net zero-carbon targets.
BP introduced PTAir Neutral in Europe in 2016 and will soon bring it to the US.
“Retailers and brand owners are seeking more environmentally-friendly solutions that will reduce the carbon impact of their products, and they’re choosing brands that address those concerns,” says Luis Sierra, head of BP’s global aromatics business.
“We know that today’s ultra-competitive US petrochemicals industry demands a relentless focus on innovation, safety and the environment – and BP is rising to the challenge.”