BP Has a Deal It Hopes We Can’t Refuse: benzene releases and refinery expansion plans…

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"Hey, you got a nice business here. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it..." 

In films and TV, that's usually what the young toughs or Outfit guys say to the hardworking shopkeeper before they shatter a display full of very valuable objects and demand protection money.

Not sure why, but this image keeps coming to mind when I look at BP's messaging around the admission that, for the past six years, their refinery in Whiting, Indiana has been releasing illegal volumes of the carcinogen benzene; and that's why they really, really need to expand operations at the plant.

Yesterday, BP acknowledged in connection with the public release of US EPA charges against the company, that the Whiting refinery has been releasing dangerous levels of the cancer-causing pollutant benzene, in violation of federal Clean Air Act, for the past six years. Benzene is highly toxic, and the Clean Air Act sets strict levels for the chemical, beyond which the public health and safety are threatened.

The US EPA dutifully cited the company for violating these health standards, thereby adding to the list of serious charges made against BP at the Whiting Refinery regarding violations of federal environmental laws ranging from air pollution linked to asthma, heart disease and premature deaths, to unpermitted construction activity.

This passage in today's Chicago Tribune is particularly problematic:

BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company has shut down the equipment that released benzene. He said the miscue shows why the company needs to modernize the Whiting plant, built in 1889 by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co.

Nice cities you got there in Gary, Hammond, and Chicago. It would be a shame if something happened to 'em. Better let us have our massive and controversial refinery expansion cuz we'd hate to see things stay the same, or....get worse...

That's the offer "we can't refuse" BP seems to be proposing: to fix the current health threatening pollution, they need to increase their refinery operations to refine even dirtier petroleum. Does that make any sense?

To bolster its case, BP leaves the impression that the refinery hasn't been upgraded since the 19th century.  This is obviously not true. The refinery has been worked on repeatedly; in fact, they were cited by the USEPA for violations in 2007 that stemmed largely from doing this work without a permit. Looking at current and past behavior, and the plan for an expansion project that fails to account for multiple areas of increased pollution, the "deal" sounds more like a threat than a solution. Don Corleone would recognize the play, so would a street crew looking for protection money.

The problem is that unlike fiction, where an avenger would swoop in to establish justice and put an end to the threat, citizens in our region are on our own. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) has done everything possible to usher along BP's project, from awarding shockingly lax pollution permits, to rushing truncated public hearings. And IDEM spokespeople had no answer as to why the toxic emissions had not been found in the agency's routine inspections of the facility.

I have to admit that I have significant interest in this. Most personally, my family and I live near the refinery---on most days we can see the smoke stacks of the refinery hugging the shore of southern Lake Michigan. We are in the direct air and water sheds of the plant. Release of toxic chemicals from the facility feel and are a bit personal.

Professionally, I am also concerned. NRDC is challenging the aforementioned expansion of the refinery based on our technical and legal analyses that indicate that the planned expansion will add significant pollution to the region beyond what is already being released from the plant. We were already especially concerned about increases in volatile organic compound releases as a result of the proposed expansion, including benzene, which contribute to the extreme, unhealthy ozone levels in the lower Lake Michigan airshed. Learning that the present refinery operations appear to violate existing regulations set to protect the public health and safety makes the inadequacies of the expansion plans all the more important from our point of view.

And the cavalier response from BP is worrying. According to the Gary Post-Tribune the company says the emissions did not result in harm to human health or the environment. "There's no evidence of anything," [a BP spokesman] said...

The obvious question repeats itself: if current operations of the refinery result in serious violations of laws that protect human health and safety, and damage the environment, why should the company be allowed to expand refinery operations to accept even dirtier crude than it currently treats, and increase the pollution from the facility?

We feel that no public exposure to a known carcinogen is acceptable. And if the Avengers aren't coming to fix the situation, maybe this is a job for our Perry Masons as we continue our long-standing legal fight over the expansion.

out by the gas fires of the refineryphoto by reallyboring via Flickr.