BP backpedals on increasing lake pollution
Written by Milwaukee journal Sentinel   
Friday, 24 August 2007 12:20

Oil giant BP announced Thursday it will back off plans to put more pollution into Lake Michigan, something the company has argued it needed as part of a $3.8 billion expansion to bump up production at its oil refinery in Indiana.

Company officials say public criticism has been so overwhelming they will not take advantage of a permit that would have allowed them to increase the amount of ammonia and "suspended solids" dumped daily into the lake. Illinois politicians were among the first to pounce after the State of Indiana gave the plan the green light in June, and the furor quickly spread to Congress. In July, the House passed a toothless resolution that called for "an end to dumping in the Great Lakes."

"This Congress will not simply stand by while our Great Lakes are treated like a dumping zone," proclaimed resolution co-sponsor Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

It was good political theater, but the reality is the outrage never matched the threat; the amount of pollution BP planned to add to the lake wasn't even a dribble compared with the toxic insults the lake has suffered historically and continues to suffer today.

"I haven't seen anything yet where anybody has demonstrated or shown on paper - when you look at the entire lake, or even locally - that there is going to be a problem as a result of this discharge," Bruce Baker, deputy water administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said two days before BP backed off.

Baker said he was happy people seem to care enough about the health of the lake to be riled, but he wonders if they were they riled by the right thing.

"Philosophically, this is a great discussion," he said. "But if people are going to get really excited about protecting the lakes, let's look at the whole array of issues facing them. Let's say BP pulls out - for everybody to declare victory would be a real tragedy, because there are a lot of issues going on in the Great Lakes that need to be dealt with that go beyond this BP permit."

Nobody is saying it is a good thing for Lake Michigan that BP was allowed to boost its daily ammonia dumping by 54%, or about 100 gallons, to more than 1,500 pounds a day.

The problem is these numbers often ricocheted about without context.

In late July, Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn hoisted a gallon of ammonia and read the warning label.

"Keep out of reach of children. Avoid contact with eyes or prolonged contact with skin. Do not swallow. Avoid constant inhalation of vapors," Quinn said, to underscore the danger of the substance, and it was good advice.

But it would be equally sage to hold up a cow pie and tell kids not to lick it, because the dairy industry is a far greater source of nitrogen - of which ammonia is a form - in the Lake Michigan basin than is BP. So is lawn fertilizer, solid waste treatment plants and nature itself - fish excrete it. The extra 100 gallons or so of ammonia that BP would have been allowed to dump daily is less than one-7 millionth of the amount already in the lake, according to Harvey Bootsma of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes WATER Institute.

Nitrogen is a nutrient, and some have worried the additional load, no matter how small, would add to problematic algae blooms fouling beaches across the basin. But Bootsma said nitrogen needs to work with phosphorous to do its damage, and there is nowhere near enough phosphorous in the lake to activate the nitrogen already there.

The permit also allowed BP to increase the amount of unfiltered particles it discharges from its water treatment plant by about a third, from about 3,600 pounds a day to about 5,000 pounds.

BP will continue to be allowed to dump the lower amount into the lake, which is a drinking source for millions of people.

This material - essentially aquatic dust that escapes filtration that has been referred to as "sludge" by some opposed to the permit and "total suspended solids" by industry and its regulators - can contain everything from organic waste to flecks of dangerous metals.

Lots of it is already going into our waters. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District reports it is allowed to discharge more than 11,000 pounds a day. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the Chicago area is permitted to discharge 243,000 pounds a day; because that city reversed the flow of its namesake river more than 100 years ago, though, the stuff typically doesn't flow into Lake Michigan. The Chicago River ultimately flows into the Mississippi River, also a drinking water source for millions of people.
Beyond BP

Some of the harshest critics of the BP permit acknowledge that the company's pipes weren't about to poison the lake.

Lee Botts, founder of the group now known as the Alliance for the Great Lakes, was among the handful of people from the public (she remembers five) who spoke at the public hearing in the spring on the BP expansion.

She said the issue is deeper than what one company is putting in the lake.

"I've been accused of defending BP - and I'm not defending BP - when I say that this new discharge (would) not be a major new environmental disaster for Lake Michigan in and of itself," Botts said earlier this week.

She said her worry was that the government was allowing a company to take a step backward in terms of pollution.

"It's very important to keep the principle of ratcheting down pollution as the guiding principle," she said.

But BP is not the only company given the OK in recent years to dump more stuff in Lake Michigan. The Wisconsin DNR reports that expansions at We Energies' Oak Creek and Pleasant Prairie coal-fired power plants have led to permits allowing more pollution. Same story, according to the EPA, with U.S. Steel in Indiana.

BP, however, has tried to paint a clean-guy image of itself in the environmentally dirty business of energy production - its motto: "beyond petroleum." Critics clubbed them with that wordplay.

"BP has spent millions of dollars to portray itself as environmentally friendly, but we now know what BP really stands for: Bad Polluter," Illinois Republican Congressmen Mark Kirk said in July.

The message spread. Noah Hall, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who used to work for the National Wildlife Federation, said he witnessed protests over the permit this summer at a BP gas station. He said he thought those people missed the point. The extra Lake Michigan pollution might not be a good thing, he said, but it's far from the worst thing about our increasing reliance on increasingly dirty sources of oil.

"If you're going to protest something, how about just the fact that they're selling gas?" he said. "You mine it, it's a disaster. You refine it, it's a disaster. You burn it, it's a disaster. It's a little bit ridiculous to say, 'Oh, my gosh, an oil company is going to pollute!' "

BP did itself no favors in the public relations department when it argued it could not do more in terms of wastewater treatment because of space. The refinery sits on a 1,700-acre site near the shore of Lake Michigan. It now is apparently going to try harder to find the space, but BP America President Bob Malone clearly was irked by all the bad press over a permit process that he said followed all the rules of public notice - something some conservationists don't buy. He also said the new BP permit met all state and federal water standards.

Malone said the plan now is to determine if the expansion project can be accomplished under existing pollution discharge limits. If it cannot, he said, BP might cancel it altogether. The hope is to boost capacity at the refinery by 15% and add on to the facility to process more super-crude oil from tarlike sands in Canada.

So the BP controversy might fade away. But the really big problems facing the Great Lakes - invasive species, shrinking lake levels, bacteria-driven beach closures, agricultural runoff, industrial messes from previous decades, mercury from coal-fired power plants, ongoing industrial pollution and sewer overflows, to name a few - remain.

But what about the public's attention?

"It's good that people are getting up in arms about the Great Lakes. But the bigger point is we all have a role in restoring them - congressmen, mayors, state leaders. It's not only one company or one person or one government entity," Jordan Lubetkin of the National Wildlife Federation said. "There is a role for all of these people to play, and they should remember that."
 
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