Indiana Regulators Let BP Pollute Lake Michigan

The Indiana state government recently extended a deal with BP that allows it to continue to dump toxic waste into Lake Michigan. Back in 2007, it gave BP permission to increase discharges of toxic pollution into Lake Michigan as part of a $3.8 billion expansion of its Whiting, IN refinery. BP wanted to upgrade the facility to be able to process heavier crude oil, as Canadian tar sands began to flow southward in significantly larger volumes.  Originally constructed in 1889 under John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, BP’s Whiting facility is one of the nation’s largest oil refineries, a massive complex located in Indiana near Chicago.

Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management granted an exemption from federal water protections to BP as part of its permit, which allowed to company to dump 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more toxic sludge into Lake Michigan. The permit also allowed BP to discharge 23.1 parts per trillion of mercury – 20 times the amount of mercury allowed under federal law. BP also consistently dumped other toxic chemicals such as benzene, lead, nickel and vanadium.

Mercury is known to cause brain damage, especially in children. However, Indiana regulators justified the exemption because the refinery expansion would provide “important social or economic benefits” – in this case, the project would create a few thousand temporary construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs.

Former IN Governor Mitch Daniels

Then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels defended the decision. When asked if the giveaway would move forward, Daniels replied, “Yes. We’ve checked it and rechecked it. They’re in complete compliance with Indiana law, which is tougher than the federal law. The EPA has checked and rechecked it, and they have approved that permit more than once. To me, the public interest says it should go forward.

“We’ve got thousands of jobs that will be at risk if it doesn’t go forward. And I would only point out that people who are upset about $3 gas now know why it’s that high. Reported as recently as last weekend, the No. 1 reason for $3 gasoline is the lack of refinery capacity in this country, and here’s one of the biggest steps forward for the Midwest and really the whole nation. And I don’t think it should be held up without a good scientific reason, and none has been provided.”

The 2007 deal exempted BP from federal water pollution limits for 5 years. Under the agreement, BP was required to conduct research into technology that would reduce mercury pollution it discharged into Lake Michigan. It worked with the Argonne National Lab to explore new technologies.

However, in 2011, as the original five year exemption neared expiration, Indiana regulators extended it because BP argued it would not be able to implement pollution control technology in time. Despite these assurances, pilot tests of new technologies found that mercury could be reduced to below federal limits. Yet BP asserts that the $21-$147 million price tag was too high – even though it expects to haul in an additional $1 billion in annual cash flow from the facility.

To make matters worse, a recent draft permit would once again extend the allowance – this time indefinitely. The permit would not require BP to actually implement mercury-reducing technology. Instead, BP said it would continue to do research and would merely report back in 2015 on its findings.

Meanwhile, BP finished its upgrade, allowing it to process an additional 250,000 barrels of crude per day. And it continues to pollute.