BP Saga Shows Public Easily Misled on Environment

Published September 19, 2007

Indiana officials recently issued an environmental permit to BP Products North America, Inc., for increased discharges into Lake Michigan due to the planned $3.8 billion expansion of its refinery in Whiting, Indiana. The resulting controversy showed the public knows very little about water quality or the nature of public health risks. It also revealed how quick politicians, professional environmental advocates, and the news media are to take advantage of the public’s ignorance to score political points and sell newspapers.

The gist of the campaign against BP was that its higher discharges were composed of dangerous toxic chemicals that would pose a threat to public health and reverse decades of water quality progress. The public was impressively alarmed, with some 100,000 citizens signing petitions against the project, including some circulated by Chicago city officials.

Ultimately, environmentalists and the media claimed victory as BP agreed to abide by earlier limits on two pollutants: ammonia and suspended solids. A victory for the folks in white hats, right? Wrong.

The let’s-abuse-BP team didn’t explain to the public that the term “pollutant” isn’t the same as “toxic.” According to the Clean Water Act, pollutants include sewage, garbage, rock, sand, and construction debris. Toxic pollutants, by contrast, are defined as chemicals causing death, disease, and deformation, among other maladies, when consumed by human and other organisms.

BP became an easy target for cheap shots about increases in two nontoxic pollutants, ammonia and suspended solids. Ammonia does not bioaccumulate, it occurs naturally–from humans and fish plus other sources–and it degrades naturally. Suspended solids likewise are not “toxic pollutants”–the new permit requires BP to monitor its discharges for an array of toxics to make sure none escape.

Genuinely toxic discharges are more strictly regulated under BP’s new permit than they were under its previous one in other ways. The new permit contains limits on mercury (a neurotoxin) and vanadium (toxic to humans and animals). BP’s old permit had no limits on how much of these two toxic pollutants BP could discharge into the lake.

Even if ammonia and suspended solids were genuine health threats, the let’s-abuse-BP mob absurdly singled out a gnat while ignoring an elephant. After the area’s mid-August rain storms, huge quantities of ammonia and suspended solids–orders of magnitude more than BP proposed to discharge–were dumped into the lake when Chicago’s public treatment plants couldn’t handle the incoming volume of sewage. This resulted in some 224 million gallons of untreated waste water containing ammonia and suspended solids being dumped into Lake Michigan.

City officials were quick to claim no harm was done to drinking water safety. It seems the white hats give government a free pass to pollute, while industry gets mauled for contributing even the smallest share of pollution.

But it’s even worse than that. Chicago’s massive discharge didn’t contain only ammonia and suspended solids. Most industries in Cook County discharge their processed waste water to public treatment plants operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC). Required pretreatment by industry of their discharges to public sewers removes some but not all toxics. While the exact amounts aren’t known, there can be no doubt that Chicago and its suburbs released toxics to the lake, including toxic heavy metals that will remain there forever.

Chicago isn’t the only government dumping human and industrial waste into Lake Michigan. The East Chicago public sewage treatment plant, for example, has a permit allowing it to discharge cyanide (1.07 pounds per day), mercury (0.0004 pounds per day), thallium (1.23 pounds per day), and cadmium (2.04 pounds per day).

U.S. EPA says by far the largest ongoing water-based source of toxic pollutant contamination of Lake Michigan is sediment at the bottom of the Grand Calumet River which, via the manmade Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, discharges into Lake Michigan about 15 miles south of downtown Chicago.

These toxic pollutants are a legacy of prior discharges of hazardous waste by industry in the Chicago area and northwest Indiana. They include PCBs, arsenic, PAHs, lead, other heavy metals, and other contaminants to the lake. An estimated $330 million will be spent in the next decades, coming from industry and government, to clean up this river bottom.

Another separate source of Lake Michigan contamination is hazardous wastes hauled by Chicago-area industry to northwest Indiana and dumped there. They include PCBs, arsenic, PAHs, lead, other heavy metals, and other contaminants to the lake, sent for dumping by hundreds of Chicago-area manufacturing companies. As a result, there are 475 toxic waste sites, a staggering number, in northwest Indiana.

While the new BP permit contains slightly higher limits of ammonia and suspended solids than its old one, it would have done little or nothing to impair water quality in Lake Michigan. The fact that this permit generated so much heat and so little light on the real problems of water quality and public health vividly demonstrates the misplaced policies of the region’s politicians, environmentalists, and journalists.

Maureen Martin ([email protected]), an attorney, is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.