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IDEM Has Some Explaining To Do

Jul 27, 2007

South Bend Tribune Editorial

We understand the need to expand U.S. oil refinery capacity. But it is certainly understandable that federal lawmakers, mayors and other officials from around the Lake Michigan shoreline responded with fury over a state-approved plan to dramatically increase the pollutants dumped into Lake Michigan by BP Oil at its Whiting, Ind., refinery.

One reason for the reaction is that key officials weren't consulted about the plan prior to its approval by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Those officials include the mayor of Chicago, a city in which millions of residents depend upon Lake Michigan for drinking water.

Much of the outrage on Capitol Hill Tuesday came from Illinois lawmakers. But it included a sharp denunciation of IDEM's action by U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, and a stern admonition to Gov. Mitch Daniels from Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph.

WSBT News confirmed Tuesday that BP has delayed its plans to increase by 54 percent the amount of ammonia and by 35 percent the amount of suspended solids it pours into the lake. The amount of waste allowed under the plan that IDEM approved would average 1,584 pounds of ammonia and 4,925 pounds of suspended solids every day.

BP's decision to step back is necessary, as public officials discuss the possibility of suing Indiana to stop IDEM and many questions are raised.It is crucial that the BP refinery meet all state and federal pollution control requirements, that its operation be as environmentally clean as possible and that the Lake Michigan environment not be damaged. Measures need to be taken to prevent an increase in the toxic waste that BP discards in Lake Michigan.

Two principal questions need to be exhaustively addressed:

-Could BP do more to increase production without increasing pollution?

The company has said to expand its waste treatment facility enough to help keep additional pollutants out of the lake would not be feasible, and that it isn't necessary because the additional pollutants allowed under the IDEM waiver wouldn't harm Lake Michigan. Clearly, many are skeptical about that response.

-Given the fact that an increase of pollutant discharge requires granting the first-ever exemption to an Indiana environmental law, as well as acting in conflict with a provision of the federal Clean Water Act, is granting the pollution waiver warranted by energy needs?Most who advocated the exception granted by IDEM have seemed more interested in the job issue than the energy issue. The $3.8 billion refinery expansion BP plans would allow it to refine Canadian crude oil and create 80 jobs in Whiting.

Although the pollution increase would be considerable, IDEM and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have maintained that the amount discharged still would be within U.S. federal limits. In that case, why was a waiver required? It was required because the project, without a fancy piece of footwork, violates the federal Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act prohibits any downgrade of water quality near a pollution source even if limits are not exceeded. IDEM sidestepped that provision by approving a plan that allows BP to mix its toxic waste with lake water hundreds of feet offshore in what is called a "mixing zone."

Granting a permit for a "mixing zone" required an exception to Indiana regulations. The EPA didn't object, even though it has opposed "mixing zones" around the increasingly fragile Great Lakes.

Beyond immediate concerns, officials have expressed worries about the precedent set by allowing, for the first time ever, additional pollutants, as well as a regulation exception. Michigan City Mayor Chuck Oberlie wonders about the cumulative effect of the additional toxins, and whether the waiver opens the door to increased pollution from other companies.Obviously this issue is very complex. It is right that the oil company not proceed with refinery expansion plans at this time. If additional cost is required, so be it. BP, IDEM and the EPA all need to address every concern to the satisfaction of those who put protection of Lake Michigan and lakeshore residents first.



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