posttrib
DECENT 
Weather Updates

BP gets ‘kid gloves’ treatment   from regulators, Durbin says

A worker dumps contaminated soil inbag Whiting IN March 25 2014. | Jim Karczewski/for Sun-Times Media

A worker dumps contaminated soil into a bag in Whiting, IN on March 25, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/for Sun-Times Media

storyidforme: 67727166
tmspicid: 22980174
fileheaderid: 11152199

Updated: July 14, 2014 6:22AM



The BP refinery at the center of an oil spill in Lake Michigan in March received no fines for polluted wastewater discharge violations over the past 12 years despite repeated problems documented in government inspection reports.

While warnings were issued for breaches such as excessive pollution levels that violated the refinery’s permit, regulators gave the BP Whiting facility a pass after follow-up visits and no fines were assessed for more than a dozen problems cited since 2002, a Better Government Association review found.

A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the plant’s frontline pollution inspector, said no fines were assessed because violations weren’t considered major and problems were fixed in what the agency considered a reasonable time.

The refinery — a hulking complex on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for almost 7 million Chicago-area and Northwest Indiana residents — likely faces penalties from U.S. officials and possibly from Indiana for the March 2014 spill, which dumped as much as 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan. The U.S. Coast Guard is expected to assess a fine of no more than $40,000 for the incident.

Environmental groups and Illinois politicians accuse Indiana of being soft on BP, which already is legally allowed to dumps millions of pounds of solid pollutants in the lake each year. A major employer in Northwest Indiana, the refinery is 2 miles from the nearest drinking-water intake equipment, and roughly 20 miles from downtown Chicago. Inspection reports reviewed by the BGA show the discretion Indiana officials use to keep a big industrial polluter in check. While U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have final say on how air and water pollution laws are enforced, a large part of that oversight is delegated to Indiana officials.

“They treat BP with kid gloves over there,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., referring to Indiana’s regulators.

Durbin criticized Indiana regulators in the past for lenient permits for water and air pollution. A years-long battle over air pollution led to government fines.

The wastewater inspection reports reviewed by the BGA show violations such as excessive amounts of phosphorous or solid pollutants dumped into Lake Michigan, improper disposal of sludge and structural failures that led to improper treatment of wastewater. In April 2011, multiple violations were cited as an inspector found nearby “water is turbid and dark due to excessive solids and biomass.” Discharges from the plant reached more than 3,000 feet into Lake Michigan, according to an inspection report.

While Indiana officials last year reduced the levels of mercury BP can dump into the lake, the amount is still much higher than recommended levels under a federal plan to clean up the Great Lakes.

The company invested $150 million to reduce levels of ammonia, metals and other pollutants from wastewater, BP spokesman Scott Dean said.

BP’s current environmental permits cover the Whiting plant’s expansion into processing large amounts of a heavy crude oil from Canada. The company last year completed a more-than-$4 billion upgrade at the facility that represents a major initiative for the company. BP is ramping up its output at a plant that already produces around 17 million gallons of gas and other fuels a day — which end up in cars, trucks and planes in Chicago and beyond.

BP, the Coast Guard and U.S. environmental officials touted a quick cleanup after the March accident, but cold temperatures and strong winds blowing toward shore helped contain the oil from spreading farther into the lake.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Lake County Surveyor Bill Emerson Jr.

Brett Chase works for the Better Government Association.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.