Oil giant BP's plan to expand its Whiting, Ind., refinery, just across the border from Chicago, is sparking a firestorm of opposition.
The expansion would allow BP to refine heavy Canadian crude oil, boosting gasoline production at the fourth largest refinery in the U.S. and reducing the nation's reliance on Middle Eastern oil.
But along with higher refining capacity, the plan spells an increase in the amount of pollution the oil company dumps into Lake Michigan. When the expansion is completed in four years, BP will be allowed to increase its discharges of ammonia into the lake by 54 percent and its discharges of suspended solids by 35 percent.
Critics say the suspended solids are essentially diluted sludge and could contain fine particles of toxic heavy metals, such as lead, nickel, even mercury.
"This is the source of drinking water for nearly 8 million people here at the south end of Lake Michigan," says Lee Botts, who founded a regional anti-pollution group in the early 1970s. "The Great Lakes cannot be a sink for pollution and survive to be the source for drinking water and the habitat for life in the lake that we want it to be."
Botts and other opponents insist that BP can do more to reduce ammonia and suspended solids discharged into the lake.
But BP officials insist that they are doing all that they can. At BP's wastewater treatment plant, Assistant Superintendent Joe Morrison holds up two jars of water. The first shows the water as it comes into the facility.
"You can see that it's quite turbid. It has some color to it — a little bit of floating oil and other materials on top, some floating solids. So it's a fairly nasty material coming in, and it's our job to clean this up and make it permissible to put back in the lake," Morrison says.
After treatment, the water Morrison shows off appears crystal clear, and even though it does have the ammonia and suspended solids that are byproducts of making gasoline, BP insists that the water discharged back into the lake is clean. Spending more money to try to purify the wastewater even more does not guarantee that the discharge will get any cleaner, BP says.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management agreed with BP that the pollution levels were not excessive and issued a permit allowing the company to increase its output. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the permit and did not object.
"The actual limits in the permit are protective of water quality. Water quality limits are designed to protect all the uses of the lake, including drinking water, aquatic life and recreation. I believe it's safe," says Peter Swenson, who oversees wastewater permits in the Great Lakes region for the EPA.
Nonetheless, BP officials are apparently trying to appease their critics, recently meeting with Great Lakes area representatives in Congress. They promised to review options for better treatment of the refinery's wastewater, and they are due to report to those same members of Congress after Labor Day.
Supporting the Great Lakes
Despite the reassurances, BP's permit to increase the amount of pollution it dumps into Lake Michigan has touched a nerve throughout the region. Some environmentalists say they haven't seen this level of support for the Great Lakes – which contain almost 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water – since the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland in 1967.
Up the lakefront in Chicago, environmentalists and the park district have been getting tens of thousands of signatures from people opposing the pollution permit for petitions that will be delivered to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Politicians throughout the Great Lakes say they have been swamped with calls from worried residents, and a radio ad paid for by political funds from Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, both Illinois Democrats, criticizes BP's plan.
Emanuel sponsored a resolution with Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers that urges Indiana to reconsider the permit. The legislation passed in the U.S. House by a whopping 387 to 26.
North Shore Illinois Republican Rep. Mark Kirk faces a tough re-election battle next year and is pressing the issue. He recently convened a task force of mayors from the lakefront communities in his district. Among the most outraged is Waukegan Mayor Richard Hyde.
"How did they get a permit to dump in the lake in the first place? How does anybody get a permit to dump anything into Lake Michigan?" Hyde bristles.
Hyde is especially angered that the pollution permit was issued at a time when his city is spending millions to clean up pollution in its Lake Michigan harbor. He and others worry about the precedent the permit sets — that if BP can increase its pollution into the lake, Indiana and other states won't be able to deny new pollution permits to other industries. One Gary steel mill reportedly is already seeking a new permit.
The hearing process for new air pollution permits BP will need for the refinery expansion has yet to begin, and lawmakers and others vow to fight it every step of the way.
Despite the pressure, Indiana's governor refuses to force his Department of Environmental Management to reconsider the permit.
Daniels says thousands of Indiana jobs and lower gasoline prices depend on BP's ability to expand its Whiting refinery.
"The No. 1 reason for $3 [per gallon] gasoline is the lack of refinery capacity in this country," Daniels says. "And here's one of the biggest steps forward for the Midwest and really the whole nation, and I don't think it should be held up without a good scientific reason. And none has been provided."