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Five-year reunion: environmental coalition weighs in on BP Whiting water permit renewal

Ann Alexander

Posted May 1, 2013 in Curbing Pollution

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Thumbnail image for BP Whiting.jpgThe summer of 2007 was heated in Chicago.  And I’m not referring to the weather.  Some of you may remember that in July of that year, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page story that Indiana had granted BP’s refinery in Whiting, Indiana a Clean Water Act permit allowing it to discharge increased ammonia and metals-laden solids to Lake Michigan in connection with its plans to start processing more tar sands from Canada.  Local residents, who have worked for decades to clean up Lake Michigan into the beloved recreational resource it now is, were not pleased.  BP insisted that there was absolutely, positively, no physically possible way to avoid the increase – that is, until the picket signs went up at BP stations around the city, and you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a politician crying foul.  At which point BP abruptly got religion and promised to find a way to hold its discharge down to then-current levels.        

And so the summer cooled off and the politicians quieted down.  But the time has now come for BP’s required five-year renewal of the permit.  NRDC and a coalition of local and regional environmental organizations submitted comments this week on the draft permit that Indiana issued for public review.

The news this time around is a mixed bag.  BP, to its credit (and our pleasant surprise), made good on its 2007 promise not to use the additional leeway in its 2007 permit for ammonia and solids discharge, and IDEM granted the company’s request to revert to the previous permit levels for those pollutants.  That’s the good news.  It seems that there are at least some means available to reduce pollution from the much dirtier tar sands crude the refinery is moving toward processing – as demonstrated also by the groundbreaking settlement that NRDC, EPA, and others entered into last year with the refinery concerning its tar sands-related air pollution.

The other sort-of good news is that BP contracted with Argonne National Laboratory and the Purdue-Calumet Water Institute in the intervening years to do some research on cutting-edge technologies to control the discharge of mercury to Lake Michigan.  It is suspected (although hard to know for sure since industry doesn’t share its data much) that at least some tar sands crude may have higher levels of mercury than conventional crude.  Which is a problem, because the water quality standard for mercury in the Great Lakes is – appropriately – very, very low.  And that problem was “solved” in 2011 by IDEM by granting BP a variance from the Great Lakes standard allowing it to discharge on average nearly 20 times more mercury than that standard allows.

The Argonne and Purdue researchers got some great results on mercury control technologies, identifying a couple of them that can pretty consistently meet or exceed the Great Lakes standard.  But the not-so-good news is that nothing in the draft permit actually requires BP to implement that technology, or even establish a time frame for doing that.  Although BP commits to running another pilot test (as the researchers had recommended), the permit neither defines any specifics about that test (as the researchers had also recommended), nor provides criteria for deciding when the technology is ready to go.  We pointed out in our comments the urgency of getting the new technology in place, and not allowing BP to simply study the problem to death, given the absurdly high mercury discharge levels currently allowed by the variance.

The other bad news is that the permit had a lot of other gaps and deficiencies that are going to harm Lake Michigan if not fixed.  For one thing, there are a number of pollutants potentially associated with tar sands crude refining that have been on the increase in BP’s effluent since 2007, but the renewed permit still sets no limits on them.  For another, BP did almost nothing meaningful to comply with the requirement that it take a hard look at alternatives for minimizing the damage to aquatic life from its cooling water intake system (sometimes referred to in our circles as the bass-o-matic). IDEM is also dug in in its refusal to make company’s stormwater management plan available to the public as the Clean Water Act requires, even though others in the regulated community (thank you, U.S. Steel) have said they don’t have a problem with showing it to us.

Fortunately, IDEM still has the opportunity to respond to our comments and fix these problems before issuing the permit in final.  We hope that the Agency will do the right thing, even if this time they don’t end up fending off an army of outraged locals.

Photo of BP Whiting refinery by Eric Allix Rogers

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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