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Promoting biodiversity in surprising places

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Solvay’s environmental objectives extend everywhere

Committing to protecting biodiversity isn't just about rainforests and vast oceans. In a quarry in Belgium, a lot can be done as well, and one Solvay site is proud to be showing the way.

Les Petons quarry, near Charleroi in Southern Belgium, is a calcium carbonate extraction site that ships chunks of limestone to Solvay’s Soda Ash plant in Rheinberg, Germany – the smaller rocks are sold locally for cement production. Spread out over 100 hectares, the quarry has been in operation for over 40 years; it was purchased by Solvay in the late 1980s to supply the Group’s very first soda ash factory (it shut down in 1994). With about 40 employees and a permit to extract 1.5 million tons of limestone per year, Les Petons is currently being extended to ensure the continued use of the site as far as 2059.

Bird in quarry

A few years ago, the quarry became the first Solvay extraction site to experiment with new procedures for biodiversity protection. In fact, at the instigation of former site manager Marc Pirson, a European program called “Life in Quarries” was launched here in 2017. “The idea is to create habitats throughout the quarry for a wide range of animals: reptiles, newts, toads…” explains Sami Limam, the site’s current manager. “The way we see it, we aren’t just here to extract rocks, but to create an environment where nature can thrive, for the good of all.”

Contrary to what one might think, quarries are actually propitious places for biodiversity, as there is little to no pollution on site and many different types of landscapes to be found in one place: water basins, rocky areas, grass… Nevertheless, “quarries are often places of poor biodiversity,” says Fernand Derycke, Sami’s predecessor at Les Petons. “Yet as soon as the quarry is no longer exploited, nature returns fast. We decided not to wait and to maintain biodiversity even while the quarry is active.”

The way we see it, we aren’t just here to extract rocks, but to create an environment where nature can thrive, for the good of all.

Sami Limam, Les Petons quarry site manager, Soda Ash.

Raising environmental awareness

So over the past three years, 47 ponds, 1.6 hectares of lawns, two cliffs for swallow nests and two platforms for terns were created throughout the quarry, along with refuge rocks for small reptiles such as slow worms and lizards. “Swallows for example like to dig their nests in sand piles, so we deliberately built sand walls for them,” says Fernand. And the attention extends to floral biodiversity as well.

Learn about Solvay's membership with the Wildlife Habitat Council

Apart from helping animals (and plants) find welcoming sites for nesting, resting and reproducing, these actions also have a series of effects on humans. Quarry workers, for starters, have gained awareness for endangered species that they see reappearing at Les Petons as a result of all the work that was done for them. Also, beyond the biodiversity preservation program itself, the quarry pursues many other initiatives: from nature walks with locals to a partnership with the nearby village school, to the creation of an orchard (where school kids have adopted trees and participate in fruit-picking outings) and the installation of beehives in collaboration with a lab for pollen analysis to measure the healthiness of the local biosphere, the quarry reaches out to the entire local community to raise awareness, inform and engage. 

“We’re lucky enough to have great relationships with the surrounding municipalities,” says Sami.  “Our objective is to help boost biodiversity in the whole area, well beyond the quarry.” In fact, this entire initiative fits within Solvay’s global efforts to protect biodiversity, which are themselves parts of the Group’s set of environmental targets and commitments.

Birds nesting in sandstone

Diversity in biodiversity

On top of its initiatives for flora and fauna, Les Petons also has a green energy policy, as it covers 20% of its electricity needs with solar panels installed on the site – additional ones will soon be placed on floating platforms on a basin, equipped with special installations for birds to land on. During the weekends, when the quarry is closed, the electricity is sold to the grid.

As a result of all its actions to promote biodiversity, in November 2019 Les Petons received a prize from UEPG, the European aggregates industry federation. “We stood out thanks to the wide range of actions we launched,” explains Fernand. “We tend to do more different things than other sites. We champion diversity in biodiversity.”