By Jamie Cross, Alliance for the Great Lakes
In a pollution expansion plan unprecedented in recent decades, British Petroleum (BP) was granted a permit in June for increasing pollution discharge from its oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana into Lake Michigan. The permit allows for dumping 54% more ammonia – 1,500 pounds – and 35% more toxics-containing solids – nearly 5,000 pounds – per day into Lake Michigan.
Announcement of the permit sparked a grassroots effort unparalleled in the last ten years. Citizens, environmental organizations, conservation groups, communities and legislators rallied into action. Within one week of the Chicago Tribune article BP gets break on dumping in lake (7/15), 45,000 petition signatures were gathered in opposition to the permit. Volunteers circulated petitions provided by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Environment Michigan, Environment Illinois, EnvironmentWisconsin, Save the Dunes Council (Ind.), and the Southeast Environmental Task Force (Ill.). Volunteers for the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District collected signatures along Chicago’s lakefront, and northwest Indiana residents hit local coffee shops and Indiana’s beachfront. Petitions also spread by email and signatures are being collected on websites.
In addition to citizen and group action, regional and national leaders weighed in on the permit. On July 25, the U.S. house passed a resolution by an overwhelming majority (387-26) urging the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to reconsider its permitting of BP’s expansion plan. The resolution was introduced by Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Vernon J. Ehlers, (R-Mich.). Several jurisdictions at the city, county, and state level in Indiana and Michigan have passed or are currently considering resolutions opposing any significant increase in pollution discharges to Lake Michigan related to the BP facility expansion.
Individuals took it a step further by making a simple choice to not fill up at BP gas stations and sending their BP credit cards to the company – cut up – with a note opposing its polluting practices.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes and Save the Dunes Council met with BP and IDEM officials and urged improvements prior to the Chicago citizens sign petitions in opposition to BPs permit for increased discharge of pollutants into Lake Michigan. permit being issued, during the regular permit comment period. In spite of their efforts, and although normally taking years to re-issue permits, IDEM issued BP’s new pollution permit within a month of the close of the public comment period.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes challenged the state’s handling of the permit, saying that the Alliance and others who commented on the proposed permit were not served notice about the“final”permit and appeal process as required by Indiana law. The Alliance filed a petition August 15 requesting that Indiana’s Office of Environmental Adjudication effectively suspend BP’s permit to discharge more into Lake Michigan.The petition argues that since notice was not served, IDEM could not have taken “final” action on the permit, and the permit appeal period has not yet begun.
Even after such widespread opposition to the permit, IDEM and the United States Environmental Protection Agency defended and upheld their approval. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels asked the former dean of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs to review the permit. And, although BP has always indicated the problem with more treatment was related to space, not technology, U.S. Representatives Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and Pete Visclosky, D-Ind initiated an exploration of emerging technologies for wastewater treatment related to the permit. Upon their request, Argonne National Laboratory and Purdue University Calumet are examining BP’s wastewater treatment technology to determine whether BP is doing everything it can technologically to make sure it’s not polluting the lake.
On August 23, citing “ongoing regional opposition,” BP announced that it will not dump more pollution into Lake Michigan. This announcement came one day after a hearing of the Administrative Rules Oversight Committee about the permit in Indianapolis. At the hearing, held by Indiana Representative Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City), concerned citizens and environmentalists demanded the permit be withdrawn and presented 150,000 signatures against the permit.
Witnesses giving testimony included Tom Anderson from Save the Dunes, Tom Mitchell of the Chicago Park District, Jeanette Neagu, League of Women Voters, as well as Tom Easterly Commissioner of IDEM and a representative from BP.
Many thanks to the many people who have taken action on this important issue. Your involvement is helping to clean up Lake Michigan! At publication time, the priority for concerned citizens is to continue to work with decision-makers and to write letters to editors to maintain pressure on BP and IDEM to do the right thing.
While BP’s pledge to maintain existing levels of discharge may resolve the current threat, their verbal commitment needs to be formalized. Further, the challenge remains to address what went wrong with the permitting process in Indiana. This includes pushing for better public outreach and involvement during permit review periods, demanding clear protective language for implementing the Clean Water Act’s antidegradation policy, and holding IDEM and USEPA accountable for enforcing it.
For more information contact Jamie Cross, Manager of Outreach Programs, Alliance for the Great Lakes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-850-0745 ext. 12.