BP Slapdown: EPA really is back on the job!

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This week EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told NPR that the "EPA is back on the job.”

And here in the greater Chicago region, EPA is back on the job in a big way!

In a long-awaited move, the United States Environmental Protection Agency title="AP" target="_blank">weighed in on the controversial BP Whiting Refinery expansion plan by acting on our 2008 Petition for review of a deeply flawed permit issued to the BP refinery, and issued a formal objection to the lax pollution permit that the State of Indiana had lavished on the project.

Basically, Administrator Jackson said that the math on the permit was fuzzy, failing to even consider numerous sources of pollution and failing to adequately control emissions from the plant. So, she sent the Indiana Department of Environmental Management back to their room to finish their homework.

Seeing EPA enforcing the law is incredibly happy-making. The decision is a victory for the citizens and environmental groups who petitioned EPA to object to the permit in August 2008 on the grounds that it did not accurately account for the large increases in dangerous air pollution that would be caused by BP’s expansion of the refinery---despite the concerns being dismissed by state bureaucrats and Big Oil lawyers. NRDC, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Hoosier Environmental Council, Save the Dunes Council, Sierra Club, citizen activists Susan Eleuterio and Tom Tsourlis have all been fighting a long and ugly battle with BP and the State of Indiana over this project for years now. And while EPA’s action does not put things to rest,  it does show that the concerns raised have been meaningful and relevant. And it bodes well for the pending court cases which are focused on very similar issues, by providing direction to how pollution should be viewed in future refinery projects.

We need the increased attention to enforcement of the law and human health considerations at the heart of the Clean Air Act.  The pollution that comes from the BP refinery and that would be increased by the permit given to BP by Indiana includes the type of pollution that causes severe respiratory disease in our community. The lower Lake Michigan airshed is in severe “non-attainment” for ozone and seriously out of compliance for particulate matter pollution---the kind of pollution that gets deeply into the lungs and can even pass into the bloodstream, with devastating consequences in the form of heart failure and asthma. We are seeing alarming rates of asthma in children in our communities. Adding further harmful pollution by ignoring new emission sources and exempting them from consideration as the State of Indiana did with the BP permit is fundamentally unacceptable. It denies our people the protection of the laws they are entitled to as citizens of a great democracy.

But on a deep level, I am also  thrilled about what this development means for the EPA.

In our neck of the woods, EPA’s action on  BP  this week follows on a string of actions that show the agency really is getting off the bench. There was the action taken against Midwest Generation LLC and the pollution that blankets Chicago from their Fisk and Crawford coal plants (and their entire aging coal fleet in Illinois). The recent effort to address the Dow Chemical mess in Michigan. The promise to re-evaluate the carcinogenic/gender bending pesticide Atrazine that NRDC’s recent report  documents to be  showing up in Midwestern drinking water in alarming concentrations. Action on  explosive, mountaintop mining that is devastating Appalachia. New vehicle fuel economy standards which cut into our crippling reliance on oil while helping to revitalize the entire automotive industry.

Oh, and very importantly, the  quote about EPA being “back on the job”? It was related to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas “endangerment  determination” which confirms what we’ve known all along---greenhouse gas pollution is endangering people and the health of the globe, driving climate change, heat storms, hurricanes and killer pollution; that global warming pollution must be addressed, starting with limiting carbon pollution.  To that end, EPA has proposed a Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule which would allow the agency to finally begin addressing CO2 emissions from large sources such as the Whiting Refinery or the Fisk and Crawford plants that produce the vast majority CO2 emissions.

And that would lead to my only disappointment in the EPA’s refinery correction this week. BP began a major expansion of the Whiting Refinery in 2008 in order to process dirty Canadian tar sands oil at the facility. The expansion would make the refinery the largest refiner of tar sands oil in the U.S. and cements this region as the epicenter of tar sands action. That means an incredible expansion of greenhouse gas emissions that remain unaddressed in the EPA objection letter. The BP project will likely spew the same amount of CO2 as a new 300-400 megawatt coal plant, about a forty percent increase from current refinery levels.

 We just can’t roll with that kind of increase and expect to stave off disaster. But with Administrator Jackson on the job, I am feeling confident that we will get action in that area soon.  After all, EPA does have a rulemaking  in the works to impose CO2 “Best Available Control Technology” limits in permits that would apply to the BP facility in the future (and maybe at some point retroactively)---thereby addressing through regulation the carbon pollution threat presented by the BP facility, and others like it.

Have Fun at the Playground, Kids! image by David Schalliol via Flickr