Monday, July 16, 2007

B(ig) P(olluter) of Lake Michigan: A few jobs, a lot of harm

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune broke the story of an unimaginably nasty little Faustian bargain the State of Indiana has entered into with BP. The absurdity of the details makes one's head spin. In short, BP is to be allowed to dump more pollution into Lake Michigan. As someone who lives on that lake's shore, it's a travesty that strikes very close to home. It's also one more example of the corruption that has overtaken our unrepresentative democracy, with corporations able to use their out-sized influence to wrangle favors from all levels of government.

In this case, BP cajoled the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to circumvent several state and federal laws that prohibit the increased dumping necessitated by the company's plans to expand their refinery in Whiting, IN. The EPA looked the other way too, but that's no surprise considering the agency's gutting under the Bush administration. These regulators profess to be "unsure" of the ecological impacts of the increased pollution. Well, I bet they don't take a drink of Lake Michigan water any time soon.

Is anybody out there still unconvinced that our political system is broken?

The lake is the source of our drinking water here in the Chicago area. It's also a place where thousands swim, fish and boat throughout the summer. The region's economy depends on it, and so do the lives of the flora and fauna that make up its fragile ecosystem. The Tribune article describes how the increased ammonia will lead to larger algae blooms that endanger fish, and the sludge the refinery produces contains poisonous heavy metals. Yet, the State of Indiana thinks it can claim sole jurisdiction and approve this license to pollute putting the rest of us at risk.

What are its absurd justifications?
  • Jobs — The refinery expansion is to produce a whopping increase of 80 jobs. Never mind what negative impacts the damage done by it will cause to the regional economy or the costs to human health. Does the betterment of 80 individual lives offset the harm done to millions? Can the state and region afford to cover the damage it will do to its residents at a time of spiralling health care costs and reduced federal dollars.
  • "Diversity and security of oil supplies" — The increased refining capacity is supposed to help the Midwest become less dependent on Middle Eastern oil reserves. Of course this comes at a time when the calamitous extent of the environmental impact of carbon-based fuels is becoming more widely accepted. Humanity needs to reduce oil production not increase it. Dependency on any oil, not just foreign oil, is a habit we need to kick.
  • State revenue — It wasn't listed among the justifications, but I can only guess that Indiana is expecting increased tax revenues from this selling of its soul. This completely ignores the greater social costs they're creating. All around the country, our society is burdened by brown sites — the souvenirs of factories that moved on after heaping their poison on the Earth. The bygone tax dollars brought in by those industries are being spent many times over in order to clean up the wastelands left in their wake.

It's somewhat ironic that BP (once British Petroleum, but now christened Big Polluter) has tried to project an environmentally friendly image, even re-working its logo a few years back to look green, bright, sunny and flowerlike. Of course that's just corporate spin to mask the damage they do to our Earth. No amount of marketing can disguise the stink of this swindle, however.

We've mortgaged our future too many times before to not have learned the hard lessons from those mistakes. Let's hope a public outcry from this latest attempt to hijack our environmental stewardship can undo the injustice perpetrated.

Here is an excerpt from the Tribune's exclusive, and a link to the full story (it might require a login):

BP gets break on dumping in lake
Refinery expansion entices Indiana
By Michael Hawthorne, Tribune staff reporter

The massive BP oil refinery in Whiting, Ind., is planning to dump significantly more ammonia and industrial sludge into Lake Michigan, running counter to years of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.

Indiana regulators exempted BP from state environmental laws to clear the way for a $3.8 billion expansion that will allow the company to refine heavier Canadian crude oil. They justified the move in part by noting the project will create 80 new jobs.

Under BP's new state water permit, the refinery -- already one of the largest polluters along the Great Lakes -- can release 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more sludge into Lake Michigan each day. Ammonia promotes algae blooms that can kill fish, while sludge is full of concentrated heavy metals.

The refinery will still meet federal water pollution guidelines. But federal and state officials acknowledge this marks the first time in years that a company has been allowed to dump more toxic waste into Lake Michigan. ...

Read the full article
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