he massive BP oil refinery in Whiting, Ind., is planning to dump significantly more ammonia and industrial sludge into Lake Michigan, running counter to years of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.
Indiana regulators exempted BP from state environmental laws to clear the way for a $3.8 billion expansion that will allow the company to refine heavier Canadian crude oil. They justified the move in part by noting the project will create 80 new jobs.
Under BP’s new state water permit, the refinery — already one of the largest polluters along the Great Lakes — can release 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more sludge into Lake Michigan each day. Ammonia promotes algae blooms that can kill fish, while sludge is full of concentrated heavy metals.
The refinery will still meet federal water pollution guidelines. But federal and state officials acknowledge this marks the first time in years that a company has been allowed to dump more toxic waste into Lake Michigan.
BP, which aggressively markets itself as an environmentally friendly corporation, is investing heavily in Canadian crude oil to reduce its reliance on sources in the Middle East. Extracting petroleum from the thick goop is a dirtier process than conventional methods. It also requires more energy that could significantly increase greenhouse gases linked to global warming.
Environmental groups and dozens of neighbors pleaded with BP to install more effective pollution controls at the nation’s fourth-largest refinery, which rises above the lakeshore about 3 miles southeast of the Illinois-Indiana border.
“We’re not necessarily opposed to this project,” said Lee Botts, founder of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “But if they are investing all of these billions, they surely can afford to spend some more to protect the lake.”
State and federal regulators, though, agreed last month with the London-based company that there isn’t enough room at the 1,400-acre site to upgrade the refinery’s water treatment plant.
The company will now be allowed to dump an average of 1,584 pounds of ammonia and 4,925 pounds of sludge into Lake Michigan every day. The additional sludge is the maximum allowed under federal guidelines.
Company officials insisted they did everything they could to keep more pollution out of the lake.
“It’s important for us to get our product to market with minimal environmental impact,” said Tom Keilman, a BP spokesman. “We’ve taken a number of steps to improve our water treatment and meet our commitments to environmental stewardship.”
BP can process more than 400,000 barrels of crude oil daily at the plant, which was built in 1889 by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. Total production is expected to grow by 15 percent by the time the expansion project is finished in 2011.
In sharp contrast to the greenways and parks that line Lake Michigan in Chicago, a string of industrial behemoths lie along the heavily polluted southern shore just a few miles away. The steady flow of oil, grease and chemicals into the lake from steel mills, refineries and factories — once largely unchecked — drew national attention that helped prompt Congress to pass the Clean Water Act during the early 1970s.
Paul Higginbotham, chief of the water permits section at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said that when BP broached the idea of expanding the refinery, it sought permission to pump twice as much ammonia into the lake. The state ended up allowing an amount more than the company currently discharges but less than federal or state limits.
He said regulators still are unsure about the ecological effects of the relatively new refining process BP plans to use. “We ratcheted it down quite a bit from what it could have been,” Higginbotham said.
The request to dump more chemicals into the lake ran counter to a provision of the Clean Water Act that prohibits any downgrade in water quality near a pollution source even if discharge limits are met. To get around that rule, state regulators are allowing BP to install equipment that mixes its toxic waste with clean lake water about 200 feet offshore.
Actively diluting pollution this way by creating what is known as a mixing zone is banned in Lake Michigan under Indiana law. Regulators granted BP the first-ever exemption.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing to eliminate mixing zones around the Great Lakes on the grounds that they threaten humans, fish and wildlife. Yet EPA officials did not object to Indiana’s decision, agreeing with the state that BP’s project would not harm the environment.
Federal officials also did not step in when the state granted BP another exemption that enables the company to increase water pollution as long as the total amount of wastewater doesn’t change. BP said its flow into Lake Michigan will remain about 21 million gallons a day.
In response to public protests, state officials justified the additional pollution by concluding the project will create more jobs and “increase the diversity and security of oil supplies to the Midwestern United States.” A rarely invoked state law trumps anti-pollution rules if a company offers “important social or economic benefits.”
In the last four months, more than 40 people e-mailed comments to Indiana officials about BP’s water permit. One of the few supportive messages came from Kay Nelson, environmental director of the Northwest Indiana Forum, an economic development organization that includes a BP executive among its board of directors. She hailed the company’s discussions with state and community leaders as a model for others to follow.
Nearly all of the other comments, though, focused on the extra pollution in Lake Michigan.
“This is exactly the type of trade-off that we can no longer allow,” wrote Shannon Sabel of West Lafayette, Ind. “Possible lower gas prices (I’ll believe that when I see it!) against further contamination of our water is as shortsighted as it is irrational.”