BP has been dumping mercury and other chemicals into Lake Michigan from its Whiting refinery for several years. Now Indiana regulators are allowing BP to renege on their promise to develop technology to reduce the toxic mercury discharge into the river.
In 2007, The Chicago Tribune conducted an investigation into BP’s Whiting refinery, located near the Illinois – Indiana border, 20 miles southeast of downtown Chicago. The refinery dumps almost 20 times more toxic mercury into Lake Michigan than federal regulations permit. The Tribune found that the state of Indiana allowed BP to increase the amount of pollutants it was dumping into the lake, including mercury, ammonia, and suspended solids.
Once BP’s polluting was exposed, Illinois politicians, including then – Sen. Barack Obama, and citizens responded with outrage. Environmental groups gathered 100,000 petition signatures and pressured BP to stop dumping toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan.
The company, aware of the potentially damaging effects of negative PR, agreed to address the issue and enlisted the help of scientists at Argonne National Laboratory and the Purdue-Calumet Water Institute to develop a solution to reduce the amount of pollutants produced by the plant.
“This is exactly the type of conduct we have come to expect from the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP oil spill,” commented Mark Proctor, President of the Levin, Papantonio law firm.
BP agreed to observe stricter limits on ammonia discharge, which can, in excess, cause massive algal blooms, potentially leading to hypoxia and dead zones, and thereby fish and marine life die outs. They also agreed to cut back on dumping suspended solids, or refinery sludge that contains heavy metals, but Indiana regulators still exempted the Whiting refinery from complying with the federal mercury standard of 1.3 parts per trillion.
The original terms of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management state that BP’s Whiting refinery can legally discharge “an annual average of 23.1 parts per trillion of mercury,” nearly 20 times the federal water quality standard. Now the department has proposed a new draft permit that would allow BP to continue their practices without installing mercury-filtering equipment or addressing the demands of the public.
The permit would allow BP to continue to dump 23.1 parts per trillion of mercury into Lake Michigan indefinitely. The company sent a letter to Indiana regulators in which it stated that it plans to continue testing mercury-removal technology and would report back in 2015.
In October 2007, The Associated Press reported that numerous safety violations had been uncovered at the Whiting refinery after a 5-month investigation by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA). In total, the violations resulted in 13 fines totaling $384,250. In 2008, Chicago Breaking News reported that the company paid $332,250 after an agency review board downgraded or dropped half of the original violations and reduced the fines by $52,000.
In 2008, BP underwent a significant marketing campaign to rebrand the company as “environmentally friendly” and committed to alternative energy. The company used catchy slogans such as, “from the earth to the sun and everything in between,” and “the best way out of the energy fix is an energy mix.” Two years later, BP caused the worst man-made environmental disaster in the history of the world.
On April 20, 2010 a blowout occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig over BP’s Macondo well prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven men were killed and oil gushed from the well for 87 days before it was plugged. The BP oil spill caused immeasurable damage to the Gulf ecosystem and coastal communities from Texas through Florida. Early this year the company pled guilty to manslaughter and was fined the largest criminal penalty ever imposed by the federal government.
Despite the extensive negligence leading up to and following their massive environmental disaster, and a disregard for public and worker safety in favor of profit and public image, it is not entirely surprising that BP was involved the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The company has a long history of safety violations, worker injuries and deaths, and environmental abuses.
Perhaps the most well-known incident, outside of the oil spill, occurred at BP’s Texas City Refinery in 2005. The explosion that occurred there killed 15 workers and injured 170. The company had acquired the refinery during their 1999 takeover of Amoco, and neglected to make suggested and much-needed safety upgrades.
An internal e-mail from 2002 reveals that BP considered replacing the Texas City refinery’s antiquated blowdown drums, which are used to collect volatile liquid and vapor, in favor of safer alternatives. And two months before the deadly explosion, safety consultants published an assessment of the “safety behavior and culture” at BP’s refinery, in which a survey of employees spoke of an “exceptional degree of fear” felt by workers. In 2004, Texas City engineer Don Parus gave a presentation to BP officials in London stating that “Texas City is not a Safe Place to Work,” and including a list of workers who had died at the refinery.
The company agreed to pay $15 million to resolve Clean Air Act violations, the largest settlement ever for Clean Air Act violations at a single facility. BP Senior Group Vice President for Safety & Operations called the disaster a “preventable incident,” and in 2009, OSHA fined BP more than $87 million, the largest fine in OSHA’s history.
The following year, BP Exploration Alaska, Inc. was responsible for the Prudhoe Bay oil spill, the largest oil spill on Alaska’s North Slope to date. The leak, which was not discovered for 5 days, resulted from a hole in a corroded pipeline, which was part of an infrastructure built in the 1970s. BP pled guilty in 2007 to violating the Clean Water Act for their 200,000 gallon Prudhoe Bay spill and paid a $20 million in fines.
Also that year, another pipeline at BP’s Lisburne Production Center, Alaska ruptured, spilling over 15,200 gallons of crude oil. In 2012, BP Exploration Alaska, Inc. was ordered to pay the state of Alaska $255 million for royalties the state lost due to production interference after two BP North Slope oil spills in 2006, which ultimately required a pipeline replacement project. According to the Huffington Post, BP argued that production was not lost, but merely delayed, and that it shouldn’t have to pay.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, two BP refineries accounted for 97 percent of all “flagrant violations” found in the refining industry from 2008 to 2011. BP received 862 citations between 2007 and 2012, 720 of which were classified as “egregious willful.” A representative for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said that BP has a “serious, systemic safety problem in their company.”
In May of this year, BP agreed to cut air pollution emissions from its Whiting refinery. The company agreed to pay over $400 million to settle legal complaints of chronic air pollution at the company’s Indiana refinery. Federal regulators cited the company for repeatedly exceeding emissions limits of harmful chemicals such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide.
The call continues for the self-proclaimed “environmentally friendly” oil giant to live up to its marketing claims. In the meantime, BP’s Whiting refinery continues dumping mercury and other toxins into Lake Michigan, and continues to be one of the largest polluters of the Great Lakes.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.