Pollution Fight Pits Illinois vs. BP, Indiana

A BP Plan to upgrade an oil refinery  --  a move that would increase jobs and production  --  has officials fighting over pollutants in Lake Michigan.
A BP Plan to upgrade an oil refinery -- a move that would increase jobs and production -- has officials fighting over pollutants in Lake Michigan. (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

WHITING, Ind. -- A proposal to allow BP to greatly increase the amount of pollutants it discharges into Lake Michigan from its refinery here has prompted a bitter war of words between officials in Illinois and Indiana.

Illinois officials have accused their neighbors to the east of fouling the lake, which has grown steadily cleaner in recent years. Indiana officials say the planned discharge is within the federal limits and accuse their Illinois brethren of grandstanding.

At issue is a plan by BP to upgrade its oil refinery in northwest Indiana to increase the amount of heavy crude oil from the Canadian province of Alberta that it can refine at its Whiting plant. To help, state regulators have granted the company a permit allowing it to dump 50 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more suspended solids into Lake Michigan.

Although BP and Indiana officials say the $3 billion plan will boost the struggling local economy, Illinois legislators, Chicago officials and environmental groups are furious. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said they will consider filing lawsuits. Chicago Alderman Edward M. Burke called for a citywide boycott of BP and is pushing to cancel about 100 BP gasoline credit cards used by city employees, mainly police officers.

"Would anyone do this at Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon?" asked Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). "Well, breaking news -- the Great Lakes are our national park. We've made dramatic improvements in the environmental quality of Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. It would be unbelievably harmful to allow the first increase in dumping pollution in the Great Lakes in 10 or 15 years."

The permit, which allows BP to release 1,584 pounds of ammonia and 4,925 pounds of suspended solids daily into Lake Michigan, was awarded on June 21 after a public comment period and took effect Aug. 1. Ammonia feeds oxygen-sucking algae blooms that kill fish, and the suspended solids in treated wastewater include mercury, lead, nickel and vanadium.

Indiana officials say that the increased amount of ammonia is still only half of what is allowed under federal law and that top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency reviewed and approved BP's plan. Vincent Griffin, vice president of energy and environmental affairs for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said BP has been unfairly targeted.

"They're the unwilling victim of a political agenda, and that's just too bad," he said. "People in other states are seeing this as an opportunity to grandstand on an issue that has no scientific basis. If something should happen to rescind this permit, that will have potential implications on every permit along the Great Lakes. This is of great concern and is being watched closely by industry and states up and down the Great Lakes."

The Whiting refinery was built in 1889 by John D. Rockefeller to process sweet crude oil from Oklahoma and West Texas. Now the fourth-largest refinery in the country, it is at the end of a long supply chain that includes Middle Eastern and African oil.

The upgrade is expected to create about 2,000 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs. BP is one of the region's largest employers, with about 1,800 people currently working at the Whiting refinery. Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) was an early booster of the plan, calling it "another huge step in Indiana's economic comeback" last fall. Facing mounting opposition, Daniels called for a review of the state's water-quality laws on Aug. 13.

In early August, BP agreed to research other ways to make the upgrade without increasing discharges into Lake Michigan. Company officials will report to Congress on Sept. 1.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company