BP backs off permit


"Refinery decides in favor of lake

In a surprising turn of events, British Petroleum announced on Thursday, Aug. 23 that it would not increase the amount of pollution it dumps into Lake Michigan at its Whiting, Ind., refinery — the fourth largest oil refinery in the United States.

The announcement, which appeared on BP’s Web site and was then picked up by the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune, came after a day of hearings at the Indiana Statehouse. The hearings, called by Rep. Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City), examined the process by which BP had been granted permission to increase its dumping by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The hearings came in the wake of a sustained barrage of criticism aimed at BP, the Daniels Administration and IDEM by state governments adjoining the lake, the city of Chicago, media outlets and tens of thousands of citizens, including many in northwest Indiana. This criticism included the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted 389-26 on July 18, calling for no increased dumping in the Great Lakes.

“If you follow the requirements, you get the permit.”

In spite of this, the Daniels Administration showed no sign of backing away from its contention that Indiana’s clean water standards are tougher than federal ones and, Gov. Mitch Daniels said in a statement on Aug. 14, “as far as we know, fully protective of the lake’s water quality.” Daniels and the head of IDEM, Thomas Easterly, insisted that the state’s granting BP permission to increase its dumping into the lake was based on sound science and what they considered a viable plan by BP.

In his testimony at the packed Statehouse hearing on Aug. 22, Easterly said that IDEM’s mission was to protect human health and the environment, that IDEM used modeling techniques to determine how much of a substance the environment could safely tolerate and that his agency developed regulations and issued permits based on what their research found to be safe levels of such substances.

Easterly claimed that “no exceptions” were made in reviewing BP’s permit application, which would have allowed for a 30 percent increase in suspended solids containing mercury and a 50 percent increase of ammonia into the lake.

Noting that the amount of pollutants BP currently discharges into the lake is comparable in volume to amounts associated with small cities the size of Racine, Wis., Easterly stated, “We don’t want to increase discharges into Lake Michigan.”

But, as Easterly said repeatedly, when it comes to issuing permits like the one given to BP, his agency is governed above all else by an incontrovertible standard: “If you follow the requirements, you get the permit.”

BP, Easterly said, had more than complied with Indiana’s “stringent” standards.

Easterly appeared to get a sympathetic reception from the bipartisan panel of state senators and representatives hearing testimony, most of whom asked questions aimed at downplaying the effects of BP’s increased discharges into the lake. His presentation was supported by Dan Sajkowski, the manager of BP’s Whiting refinery, who said that while “we never can predict what will happen …We would never do anything to harm [Lake Michigan] whatsoever.”

“The law may have been weakened.”

But Thomas Anderson, the executive director of the Save the Dunes Council in Michigan City, pointed to a history of variances that Indiana has granted the refinery dating back to 1975. “Be careful when someone says the project meets the requirements of state law,” Anderson said. “The law may have been weakened.”

Anderson added that technical experts from the Alliance for the Great Lakes, including university professors and retired Environmental Protection Agency officials, have made suggestions to BP about alternative ways to treat increased pollution that could collect ammonia and create a marketable product. Two Indiana firms have claimed they have ways of treating refinery discharge that spare the lake and create Indiana jobs.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Rep. Pelath concluded that it would be “very difficult” for BP’s IDEM permit to be revoked by legislative means. He was quoted in The Indianapolis Star, saying, “The most likely outcome is that BP alters some of their own behavior, prior to being subjected to any regulatory or legislative changes.”

“We could be forced to cancel it.”

And, a day later, that is what happened. “Ongoing regional opposition to any increase in discharge permit limits for Lake Michigan creates an unacceptable level of business risk for this $3.8 billion investment,” said BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone in a prepared statement. BP promised that it would hold its discharges at current levels. “We will not make use of the higher discharge limits in our new permit,” Malone said.

BP sought to increase the discharge of its pollutants because it wants to expand the refinery in order to process heavy crude from Canada. “If we determine that post our Canadian heavy crude oil project we cannot operate the refinery and meet the lower discharge limits in our previous permit, we will work to develop a project that allows us to do so. If necessary changes to the project result in a material impact to project viability, we could be forced to cancel it.”

In Michigan City, Thomas Anderson was quick to respond, “This is great news for Lake Michigan, Save the Dunes and all the citizens that have responded with a huge outcry against additional pollution into Lake Michigan.” Anderson concluded by saying that this didn’t have to be a matter of environment versus economic growth. “We have maintained that this project can go forward and we can protect Lake Michigan.”