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:
- BP Whiting is the source of the massive mounds of petcoke currently burying portions of the Southeast Side of Chicago, much to the chagrin of neighbors who find the oil refining waste at the edge of their yards and parks.
- Indiana recently put out draft water pollution permits that would have allowed the refinery to dump more than 16-times the federal limit of mercury directly into the Lake, which is a drinking water source for more than 7 million people. After pushback from NRDC and lots of others, the final permit was dialed back to only 7-times the allowable federal limit for this particular brain poison.
- They crap up the air too. We battled them in court for years when they tried to game the numbers and imply that a massive expansion to process the dirtiest oil on the planet would reduce the amount of pollutants they streamed into the air. Eventually, they settled with us, our partners and the USEPA, forced to make an addition $400 million investment to help actually reduce the mess they emitted.
- Oh, and dead monkeys. But that’s probably not their fault…
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.