BP's Lake Michigan Oil Spill: More mess and less transparency from the refinery Chicagoans love to hate

BP Whiting with Chicago in the background by J. Henry Fair

Ask any Chicagoan and they’ll tell you that Lake Michigan is a big part of what makes this town great. So, perhaps this is what makes BP’s nearby refinery in Whiting, IN so reviled.

The week of the Exxon Valdez disaster anniversary and a week after the Council of Canadians released a report highlighting the threat that tar sands oil imposes on the Great Lakes, BP did what it always does: crapped up Lake Michigan.

Yesterday, an undetermined amount of oil made its way into the refinery’s water treatment unit and was dumped into the Lake, mucking a half mile of shoreline with waxy residue.

That’s the same water treatment unit that was venting the carcinogen benzene directly into the air… Which is just one of many controversies that have emanated from this gargantuan facility perched just a few miles down the Lakeshore from Chicago, in the midst of densely populated Northwest Indiana. To refresh your memory:

Most of those issues stem from that $4 billion expansion to process dirty Canadian tar sands oil; making the BP refinery a harbinger of many negative impacts coming from the this bottom of the barrel petroleum being foisted on the world by the oil industry. Climate dangers alone should make the public wary about further use of tar sands, the most carbon intensive petroleum on the planet. But the stream of mess coming out of BP Whiting reveals the social, political and democratic threats that addiction to tar sands pose to citizens and communities.

Changes in our oil sector are not about distant activities and oil rigs. They are about immediate impacts people are starting to see in their homes, families and neighborhoods: Polluted waters; Mounds of solid waste; Risky transportation schemes that bring filth, explosions, pollution and destruction to our homes, waters and air in the form of oil trains and leaky pipelines.

Speaking of leaky pipes, Enbridge’s Line 6B originates near BP’s Whiting refinery. That is the pipeline that spurted a million+ gallons of heavy tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, resulting in the biggest and most expensive inland oil spill in our nation’s history. Like BP yesterday, Enbridge did not give detail on what was running in that pipeline—going so far as to deny that tar sands oil was involved with the spill, until Michigan Messenger’s Todd Heywood and OnEarth’s correspondent Kari Lydersen forced the company’s CEO to come clean. That obfuscation of truth had very real impacts. While cleanup up crews were skimming the river for oil, heavy tar sands globules sank. Today, submerged oil is still being cleaned in the riverbed.

So, while the Financial Times reports that the spill was likely 10-12 barrels, BP’s statements have been far less concrete. While the scope of yesterday’s spill is clearly a tiny fraction of the Kalamazoo disaster, it’s still not clear what kind and how much oil made its way into Lake Michigan from the refinery. A day later, we still don’t know

It is that lack of transparency that drives environmentalists and government decisionmakers alike crazy. The public needs to know what has made its way into their drinking water sources and whether it is being adequately cleaned. Sure, state and federal regulators need to do better: press calls to USEPA were routed directly to BP to answer.

But ultimately, this lack of transparency is wholly unacceptable.

It is why a spill like this one, whether big or small, will continue to garner national headlines.

And that is the sort of behavior that will keep BP Whiting the refinery Chicagoans love to hate. As the rest of the country catches on, it should spur a move to get serious about ending our dangerous addiction to oil—and all the damaging projects like Keystone XL that are designed to delay that action.


BP Whiting with Chicago in the background by J. Henry Fair. Image used with permission - © J Henry Fair 2013, www.IndustrialScars.com / Flight provided by LightHawk, www.LightHawk.org