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Employees encourage wildflowers, wildlife in ExxonMobil’s ‘green belt’

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Advocate staff photo LIZ CONDO

By ED CULLEN ,Advocate staff writer

Wildflowers don’t spring to mind when someone says oil refinery, but with the late spring rains Indian blanket, lemon bee balm, Mexican hat, partridge pea and Plains coreopsis are blooming across Scenic Highway from ExxonMobil.

The wildflower meadows are the work of ExxonMobil employees headed by David Gaines, a chemical engineer at ExxonMobil for 29 years before taking the job of corporate real estate manager seven years ago.

In 1989, Exxon began buying lots in a three- or four-block by 2-mile corridor along Scenic Highway. Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999.

When residents near the refinery accused the company of setting up a buffer zone following a Christmas Eve explosion at the refinery, Exxon officials said the refinery had begun buying vacant or abandoned houses nine months before the explosion.

Crime around the refinery prompted what ExxonMobil now calls “the green belt,” an Exxon spokesman said.

Baton Rouge Green worked with Exxon to plant a corridor of native trees from near Chippewa Street to Monte Sano Bayou on the northern boundary of the ExxonMobil Chemical Plant.

“Two years ago, the site manager wanted to make the green belt more conducive to wildlife,” Gaines said. “I did some research and found that pollinator habitat was diminishing.”

As though on cue, a butterfly appeared outside the window of Gaines’ pickup truck parked in a field overlooking Monte Sano Bayou, across Scenic Highway from the chemical plant.

Two years ago, Gaines attended a Wildlife Habitat Council symposium in Baltimore. That led to ExxonMobil employees in Baton Rouge earning Wildlife at Work certification from WHC.

In 1988, WHC was founded to bring together conservation advocates and industry. ExxonMobil, which has a seat on WHC’s board, has earned the council’s certification for work at corporate sites in Texas, Montana, New Jersey, Wyoming and Louisiana.

In Baton Rouge, Exxon, Baton Rouge Green, Southern University urban forestry students and faculty, Boy Scout Troop 391 at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, Louisiana Landscaping Co. and C.J. Brown Realtors worked on projects that included turning  a former doctor’s office at Scenic Highway and Shelley Street into the ExxonMobil Learning Center.

ExxonMobil bought the building from Turner Industries, Gaines said. The building and surrounding land became classrooms, an urban arboretum and trails that introduce city children to nature, Gaines said.

When Gaines needed expert advice, he turned to company biologists including Ron Dunham.

“The genesis was David Gaines,” Dunham said. “He became aware of the Wildlife Habitat Council and that led him to some of us in the environmental group and Dave Banowetz.”

Banowetz is an Exxon lawyer who’s turned his yard and adjoining land into wildlife habitat.

“I’ve known Dave for 20 years,” Dunham said. “I knew he was involved in planting pollinator gardens at his house in St. Francisville. He had experience planting flowers for bees and butterflies.”

“The objective,” Banowetz said, “was to include a range of annual and perennial plants that would be self-sustaining and not need major reseeding each year.”

Wildflower seed was planted on ExxonMobil land in 2008. This spring, the wildflower meadows bloomed after reseeding themselves.

Through work with The Louisiana Native Plant Society and Cajun Prairie Restoration Society, Banowetz put together a seed mix and some native grasses.

“We included grasses because they are often host plants for butterflies, provide natural nest material for the birds and harbor insects essential for  nesting birds to feed their young,” Banowetz said.

The $1,000-an-acre seed mix is meant to provide wildflowers blooming from mid-March through October, Banowetz said.

Wildflowers include lemon bee balm, lanceleaf coreopsis, Plains coreopsis, red salvia, Indian blanket, Prairie coneflower, Mexican hat, clasping coneflower, Maximilian sunflower, evening primrose, partridge pea, black-eyed Susan, gayfeather, purple coneflower, Prairie clover and standing cypress (also called Texas plume and red Texas star).

Gaines’ barn in Zachary became a birdhouse factory where volunteers including Exxon employees, Boy Scouts, members of Gaines’ church, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church; and family turned out 200 birdhouses for Eastern Bluebirds, bats and wood ducks.

Nut-bearing trees and wildflowers were planted on 279 acres of Exxon’s former Maryland Tank Farm, east of U.S. 61 north of Baton Rouge. Wildflowers and shelters for wood ducks, bats and Eastern Bluebirds were used to establish wildlife habitat along the refinery’s Mississippi River waterfront, as well.

Robin James, an administrative worker at Exxon, coordinated some of the habitat effort and built birdhouses in Gaines’ barn.

“I got to meet people I wouldn’t normally associate with at work,” James said. “It was just a really good time.

“We have a lot of sites, and they just sit there barren,” she said. “It’s good to do something that benefits wildlife.”

“We’re part of this community,” Gaines said. “We work here and live here.”



Written by demon53

June 7, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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