ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
We begin this half hour with a story about the oil company BP and its plans to expand its Whiting, Indiana, refinery that's just across the border from Chicago. The plan has kicked up quite a debate.
The expansion would allow BP to refine heavy Canadian crude from Alberta's oil sands. It would boost gasoline production at the fourth largest refinery in the U.S., and supporters say reduce the nation's reliance on Middle Eastern oil. But the refinery would also increase the amount of pollution dumped into Lake Michigan, and that has outraged people all around the Great Lakes.
NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: At the south end of Lake Michigan just 35 miles from downtown Chicago is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and a fairly pristine little beach.
Ms. LEE BOTTS (Founder, Alliance for the Great Lakes): We're here by Lake Michigan in what's known as Miller Beach on the east side of Gary, Indiana.
SCHAPER: Lee Botts lives just a few blocks inland from the lake here and shows us around at a hot, humid and hazy day.
Ms. BOTTS: You can see through the haze industry over there including the BP refinery. But it would be hard to pick it out because it is nestled in with steel mills and other industry.
SCHAPER: So you got the BP refinery, the steel mills, and to the east of the…
Ms. BOTTS: To the east, we have steel mills and more steel mills and power plants. And that's the incredible thing about this shoreline that it's so much beautiful, natural area had survived in the midst of industry.
SCHAPER: And Botts is fighting to keep it that way. In the early '70s, Botts founded a group now known as the Alliance for the Great Lakes. She's fought many battles against polluters before and has seen great improvements in Lake Michigan.
Ms. BOTTS: In the last couple of decades, the trend has been to reduce the amount of pollution. I mean, this is backsliding.
SCHAPER: This refers to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's decision to grant a new water pollution permit to BP. The permit allows the oil company to dramatically increase the tons of pollution it dumps into Lake Michigan as BP expands its lakefront refinery in Whiting, Indiana. 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 like Botts say the suspended solid is essentially diluted sludge and could contain fine particles of toxic heavy metals such as lead, nickel and even mercury.
Ms. BOTTS: This is a source of drinking water for nearly eight million people here at the south end of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes cannot be a sink for pollution and survive to be the source of drinking water and provide a habitat for life in the lake that we want it to be.
SCHAPER: Now, Botts isn't necessarily against BP's plan to expand. She praises BP for some of the company's efforts to reduce and cleanup its air, water and ground pollution around the refinery. And she says company officials listen to concerns.
Ms. BOTTS: They were responsive, answered our questions. We had a series of meetings. But in the end, we had to agree to disagree.
SCHAPER: Botts and others insist BP can do more to reduce ammonia and suspended solids discharged into the lake. But BP officials say they're doing all they can.
And to demonstrate just that at its wastewater treatment plant, BP assistant superintendent Joe Morrison holds up before and after jars of water. First, showing the water as it comes into the facility.
Mr. JOE MORRISON (Assistant superintendent, BP): You can see that it's quite turbid, has some color to it, a little bit of floating oil and other materials on top, some floating solids. So fairly, nasty material coming in. And it's our job to clean this up and make it permissible to put this back into the lake.
SCHAPER: After treatment, the water Morrison shows off appears crystal clear. Even though it does have the ammonia and suspended the solids that are byproducts of making gasoline, refinery manager Dan Sajkowski insists the water discharged back into the lake is as clean as it can possibly be.
Mr. DAN SAJKOWSKI (Refinery manager, BP, Whiting, Indiana): Well, again, we're like five nines pure, so 99.999 percent pure. And we don't feel to add more technology at this point would necessarily return any benefits. So you're operating up against like the best available technology limit at this point.
SCHAPER: Sajkowski says spending more to try to purify the wastewater more doesn't guarantee that the discharge can get any cleaner. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management agreed with BP that the pollution level wasn't excessive and issued a permit. U.S. EPA reviewed the permit and did not object.
Peter Swenson oversees wastewater permits in the Great Lakes region for the EPA.
Mr. PETER SWENSON (Chief, Water Permits Section, EPA): The actual limits in the permit are protective of water quality. And the water quality limits are designed to protect all the uses of the lake, including drinking water, aquatic life, recreation. I believe it's safe.
SCHAPER: But despite the reassurances, BP's permit to increase the amount of pollution it dumps into Lake Michigan has touched a nerve. And not just among neighbors of the refinery, but throughout the Great Lakes region. The firestorm has been so great that some environmentalist admit to being caught off guard. Veterans of the movement say they haven't seen support for the Great Lakes like this since the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland in 1967. Up the lakefront in Chicago, environmentalist and the park district have been circulating petitions on the city's beaches, getting tens of thousands of signatures of people opposing the pollution permit that will be delivered to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Politicians throughout the Great Lakes say they've been swamped with calls from worried residents. And then there's this.
(Soundbite of radio advertisement)
Unidentified Man: If you live in the Chicago land area, this is a clean water alert. BP Amoco has announced plans to expand an Indiana refinery to process thick crude oil, already one of the worst polluters of Lake Michigan.
SCHAPER: This radio ad airing around Chicago is paid for by the political funds of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel - both Democrats. Emanuel sponsored a resolution with Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers that urges Indiana to reconsider the permit. It passed the U.S. House by a whopping 387 to 26.
Representative MARK KIRK (Republican, Illinois): Well, I want to thank everyone for coming. We'll start just a minute.
SCHAPER: North Shore, Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk - a Republican facing a tough reelection battle next year - is pressing the issue too, recently convening a task force of mayors from the lakefront communities in his district.
Mayor RICHARD HYDE (Democrat, Waukegan, Illinois): There are several things that I don't understand.
SCHAPER: Among the most outraged is Waukegan Mayor Richard Hyde.
Mayor HYDE: And how did they get a permit to dump in the lake in the first place? How does anybody get a permit to dump anything in the Lake Michigan?
SCHAPER: Hyde is especially angered that the pollution permit is issued at a time 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, how can Indiana or other states say not to other industries wanting new pollution permits too? Already, one Gary Steel Mill is reportedly seeking a new pollution permit. But despite the pressure, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is refusing to force his Department of Environmental Management to reconsider the permit. Daniels says thousands of Indiana jobs and lower gas prices depend on BP's ability to expand its Whiting refinery.
Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Illinois): The number one reason, for $3 gasoline, is the lack of refinery capacity in this country. And here is 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.
SCHAPER: But while Daniels is reluctant to reconsider the permit, BP officials apparently are trying to appease their critics. They recently met with Great Lakes area representatives in Congress and promised to review options for better treating the refinery's wastewater. They're due to report to those same members of Congress after Labor Day. Meantime, the hearing process for new air pollution permits BP will need for the refinery expansion hasn't even started. Lawmakers and others vow to fight that every step of the way.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.