Faced with public outrage and congressional pressure, the oil company BP vowed six years ago to develop cutting-edge technology that could sharply reduce toxic mercury discharged into Lake Michigan by its massive refinery about 20 miles southeast of downtown Chicago.
BP enlisted scientists at Argonne National Laboratory and the Purdue-Calumet Water Institute to come up with methods that company officials said could set a model for factories and sewage treatment plants throughout the Great Lakes region. But despite promising results from two options tested, a new draft permit from Indiana regulators allows BP to avoid installing the mercury-filtering equipment at the Whiting refinery.
Under the terms of an earlier decision by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the BP refinery can legally discharge an annual average of 23.1 parts per trillion of mercury — nearly 20 times the federal water quality standard for Great Lakes polluters. The proposed new permit would allow that special exemption to continue indefinitely.
Though the amount of mercury that BP's treatment plant puts into the lake is small compared with what falls into the water from air pollution, the federal limit of 1.3 parts per trillion reflects decades of research showing that even tiny drops of the brain-damaging metal can contaminate fish and threaten people. The Whiting refinery is among a handful of industrial polluters that still release mercury-laden wastewater into southern Lake Michigan, according to federal records.
In a letter to Indiana regulators, BP said it plans to keep testing the mercury-removal technology and promised to report back by 2015.
"BP is committed to following the rules, regulations and laws to protect Lake Michigan waters and maintain the lake's high quality," Mitch Beekman, the refinery's manager of health, safety, security and environment, said this month at a public hearing.
Environmental groups that have wrangled with BP for years about the refinery's pollution want the draft water permit overhauled to include legally enforceable deadlines.
"If good intentions were enough to improve water quality, we wouldn't need the Clean Water Act and pollution permits," said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We don't want a permit that allows BP to just study this technology to death. They need to be using it."
BP's 2007 pledge to tackle its mercury problems came after a series of Tribune stories documented how Indiana had allowed the Whiting refinery to substantially increase the amount of toxic ammonia and suspended solids released into Lake Michigan, a move that ran counter to decades of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes. The newspaper also reported that Indiana had exempted BP from meeting the stringent federal limit on mercury water pollution.
Allowing BP to skirt environmental laws helped clear the way for a $3.8 billion expansion of the Whiting refinery that, when completed later this year, will upgrade the nation's seventh-largest refinery to process heavy Canadian crude oil from the tar sands region of Alberta. Indiana regulators justified the move in part by stating that the project will create thousands of construction jobs and 80 new refinery jobs.
Across the state border in Chicago, the public and political reaction to the newspaper's coverage was swift and sustained. Environmental groups gathered 100,000 petition signatures, then-Rep. Mark Kirk threatened to strip BP of lucrative tax breaks, Sen. Dick Durbin ran radio spots urging the public to speak out and then-Sen. Barack Obama and then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel urged congressional hearings. At Lollapalooza, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder called for a BP boycott and led the crowd in a BP protest song.
After insisting for months that they couldn't come up with a solution, BP executives backed down and promised to abide by the terms of an older permit that imposed more stringent limits on ammonia, which promotes algae blooms that can kill fish, and on suspended solids, tiny particles of refinery sludge concentrated with mercury and other heavy metals.
Indiana gave BP until 2012 to meet the strict federal mercury limit but predicted the refinery would fail to meet the deadline. In late 2011, state regulators exempted the refinery from complying and set its mercury limit at 23.1 parts per trillion, allowing BP to continue legally violating the federal standard.
The proposed new permit renews the more stringent limits on ammonia and suspended solids for at least the next five years. But the wording leaves it to Indiana regulators to decide whether to reduce the refinery's mercury limit sometime in the future.
"We're not sure yet if the technology they've come up with will work on a bigger scale," said Bruno Pigott, assistant commissioner for water quality at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
In contrast to 2007, when Indiana regulators steadfastly defended the permit they had awarded BP, they appear willing this year to consider changes suggested by environmental groups.
"We're not opposed to further refining the permit," Pigott said. "If there is a solution that really works, let's get that going."
In a 2012 report, researchers from Argonne and Purdue reported that they had successfully tested two technologies that reduced mercury concentrations in a portion of the treated refinery waste discharged into Lake Michigan. Both pilot tests met the federal mercury limit by pumping a stream of wastewater through special filters; one also doused it with a chemical used to reduce mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The researchers estimated that installing equipment big enough to screen all of the BP refinery's wastewater would cost $21 million to $147 million.
BP, which reported a first-quarter profit of $4.2 billion, said more testing is needed to ensure the equipment works consistently. "We agree the results so far are promising," said Scott Dean, a company spokesman.
Federal officials will have the final say. In a statement, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is consulting with Indiana officials and is poised to intervene if the proposed permit "doesn't meet federal requirements."
"In the past we have demonstrated to BP that keeping our lake as healthy as possible is in the best interest of their company," Durbin said Friday. "If the technology exists to dramatically reduce the amount of mercury dumped into the water source for millions of Illinoisans, then BP should be using it."
Mercury concerns scientists and environmental regulators because of its staying power in the environment. The metal accumulates and becomes more dangerous as it moves up the food chain from bacteria to fish to people.
All of the states on the Great Lakes advise people to limit eating certain types of fish because of high levels of mercury contamination. Consuming even small amounts of mercury can damage the developing brain and nervous system of infants and young children, as well as trigger neurological problems in adults.
Prodded by Congress, the EPA moved during the 1990s to virtually eliminate mercury in water pollution. "The risks posed to human health and to the Great Lakes themselves by these toxic pollutants are simply too high to ignore," then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner said in 1999.
Air pollution remains the greatest source of man-made mercury in the lakes. Federal researchers estimate that 880 pounds of the metal drop into Lake Michigan every year, mostly from drifting pollution emitted by the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants along and near the shore.
Since 2005, BP has reported that the Whiting refinery's treatment plant discharged between one-tenth of a pound and 2 pounds of mercury into the lake annually, according to state and federal records. If the refinery met the federal Great Lakes standard, its annual mercury discharge would be reduced to 8/100ths of a pound.
Steady pressure from environmental groups and regulators already has forced BP to take several other steps to clean up the refinery, which remains one of the largest industrial sources of air and water pollution along Lake Michigan.
BP last year agreed to spend $400 million on new pollution controls to settle legal complaints about the refinery's air pollution filed by the EPA and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. Equipment being installed at the refinery will significantly reduce emissions of lung-damaging soot and promise cleaner air throughout the Chicago area.
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