For almost four decades, BP’s Cooper River chemical facility has operated quietly and safely while tucked away in a secluded wilderness of forests and wetlands on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina.
However, Charleston is growing rapidly, and now that the city’s neighborhoods are moving steadily toward the plant, the people who run Cooper River want the South Carolina public to know more about their facility.
“We have been pretty isolated, but more residential development is coming toward us,” said Mark Fitts, plant manager. ”We just want to be a little more public-facing; we want people to know we are here, and we want to talk about some of the things we do besides operating a chemical facility.”
The plant sits on a 450-acre piece of land surrounded by 5,550 acres of forest, which has served as a nature preserve and giant buffer zone between the facility and the outside world. Motorists passing by the plant can’t see it from the road.
“There are a lot of people who do not know we are here,” he said. “We want to raise our profile among Charleston-area policymakers and thought leaders, and demonstrate that the site is a great example of corporate and environmental excellence.”
The Cooper River management team is doing more than simply changing the way the facility presents itself to the public.
BP has also embarked on a major upgrade at the plant that will reduce emissions and make Cooper River more energy efficient and competitive.
The chemical plant is one of the world’s largest producers of purified terephthalic acid (PTA), the basic building block used to make to make thousands of everyday products including plastic bottles, clothing, home textiles, carpets and industrial fibers.
The facility’s two units have an annual capacity of more than 1.3 million metric tons of PTA, making it the largest site of its kind in the U.S.
Since operations began in 1978, Cooper River has operated in a sort of “silent running” mode, a quiet approach that focuses on safe and reliable operations with a strong emphasis on environmental stewardship.
BP’s efforts at preserving and nurturing the wildlife around the facility have garnered numerous awards and recognition from environmental, educational and conservation groups over the years.
“The site’s active biodiversity and educational programs are models for corporate environmental stewardship,” said Ernie Nelson, the plant’s site/security specialist in the Health, Safety, Security and Environmental (HSSE) department.
Nelson can tick off a list of achievements in which plant employees take great pride:
Nelson said a visitor to the forest around the Cooper River facility might run into all kinds of animals.
“We have deer, turkeys, snakes, beaver, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, hawks, eagles – if it is common to the coastal plain, we have it,” he said.
Nelson said the effort involved in taking care of the forest and the wildlife is made possible by BP and facility employees who volunteer their time to carry out conservation programs.
The land management program includes reforestation, prescribed burning and selective thinning to remove debris and stimulate native plant growth.
Nelson said the site’s volunteer biodiversity team helps employees get involved in habitat projects and in managing the health of the forest and wildlife through many activities.
“BP Cooper River employees continue to be good stewards of this remarkably diverse habitat,” Nelson said. “I am proud of their teamwork over the years to protect, enhance and share this beautiful area.”
The wildlife habitat is also used extensively by local students, workers and youth organizations, who often camp there overnight.
Fitts said it is not unusual for him to authorize visits by Boy Scouts, search dog training teams and other groups on weekends.“We have always been very involved in the local community, in terms of school, STEM, the United Way [and] youth organizations,” he said.
The plant’s geographical isolation, which makes it an excellent wildlife refuge, also means there are segments of the local population – especially newcomers to Charleston – who might not know much about it.
When the Cooper River facility opened, the population of the Charleston region (including Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley Counties) was about 430,000.
By the 2010 U.S. Census, it had grown to 664,000, and it is projected to reach 736,000 by 2020. Much of the region’s new construction will occur on undeveloped lands not far from the Cooper River plant.
“We want people to know about our economic impact, our safe operations, and the big way we contribute to the neighboring communities where our employees live and raise their families,” said Hope Lanier Freeman, BP’s Cooper River government affairs representative.
The facility has more than 200 employees, pays nearly twice the average local wage, and supports nearly 1,500 jobs in the state, Lanier said.
In 2014, BP spent more than $2.7 million on property taxes in South Carolina, while also spending more than $59 million with more than 150 vendors in the state. BP has contributed nearly $1.75 million to the local community since 2010.
In order to get this information out to the public, BP’s Cooper River team has been engaging the community in several different ways.
For example, the team established an employee Citizen Action Program Council, hosted elected officials for tours and visits with employees, and increased engagement with local organizations.
Fitts said that as development begins to crawl toward the facility, it is important for BP to be able to work with local officials to address growth, traffic and other issues.
While the BP Cooper River team is engaged in raising its public profile, the facility is undergoing a $170 million infrastructure improvement.
The upgrades are aimed at cutting electrical consumption, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping the plant financially competitive.
Fitts said the program, scheduled for completion in the fourth quarter of 2016, will reduce electrical consumption by about 40 percent. “And there are significant greenhouse gas reductions that come with using less electricity,” he said.
When the project is completed, the reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions should be equivalent to eliminating the electricity and heating emissions of about 2,000 typical U.S. households.
The upgrade will make the facility one of the most efficient PTA manufacturing plants in the world.
The importance of Cooper River and its people to BP was underscored recently when BP America Chairman and President John Mingé spent two days visiting the facility.
“I have never seen such a strong focus on people and leadership, and the last couple of days exemplify that,” Mingé said. “If I could paint a picture of family, Cooper River is what it would look like.”
During his visit, Mingé also met with employees at a town hall meeting and recognized the work done there and across BP in America.
“Our combined efforts make the U.S. an important part of this company,” he said. “And Cooper River and petrochemicals play a key role in delivering value to BP.”