Activists say regulators going too easy on Chicago-area BP refinery

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed fines to be levied against BP in the wake of a March 24, 2014 oil spill into Lake Michigan from its refinery in Whiting, Indiana that sparked a larger investigation by federal regulators.

But in public comments filed July 12, local residents and environmental activists are saying the fines BP and the EPA agreed upon are not enough; “less than a drop in the bucket for BP,” as activist Patricia Walter put it.

The EPA investigation after the 2014 spill found past pollution and violations, leading to the fines and other requirements currently being finalized. For the 2014 spill, BP has agreed to pay $151,899 and remedy the violations of its spill prevention and containment procedures.

For violations of wastewater discharge limits in 2011, BP has agreed to pay $74,212 and “install new monitoring equipment, implement an inspection and cleaning schedule for a wastewater treatment device, and enhance stormwater controls and inspections to prevent unauthorized discharges,” as noted in an EPA press release.

The U.S. Coast Guard previously fined BP $2,000 for the 2014 spill.

The public comments were filed by Walter, fellow Chicago-area resident Debra Michaud, and Northwest Indiana grassroots watchdogs Carolyn Marsh and Carlotta Blake-King, members of Citizens Act to Protect Our Water (CAPOW) and Tar Sands Free Midwest respectively.

They say the $74,212 fine should be replaced by fines totaling $619,500 plus a $5 million penalty since the pollution occurred within the federally-designated Great Lakes Area of Concern. And they propose that the EPA replace the fine related to the 2014 spill with “the maximum $187,500 and impose an additional $100,000 for absence of a culture of health and safety.”

Additional demands

The EPA will consider public comments and then issue a final order regarding the fines and actions that BP must take.

The residents came up with their requested fines based on maximum possible daily or monthly fines for exceeding limits on total suspended solids, phosphorus and other forms of pollution.

Like many others in the Chicago-area environmental community, they say that state and federal regulators are not strict enough with BP about air and water pollution from the Whiting refinery. They note that the Coast Guard had authority to fine the company up to $40,000 for the 2014 spill, but chose to charge only $2,000.

The public comments cite a recent investigation by the Chicago-based Better Government Association, where reporter Brett Chase wrote that BP “paid no fines over the past dozen years for multiple violations of water pollution permits. A review of government inspection reports by the Better Government Association found that despite more than a dozen violations of water pollution regulations since 2002, BP wasn’t fined once by its frontline regulator, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.”

The Indiana refinery is just over the Illinois-Indiana border from Chicago, and there has been much outcry in the past from Chicago elected officials and residents worried about the refinery’s effect on Chicago’s drinking water supply from Lake Michigan. Other towns including Hammond, Indiana, also get their drinking water from the lake. Hammond’s intake is about two miles from where the 2014 spill occurred.

While the state government of Indiana is generally responsible for administering and enforcing the federal Clean Water Act within its borders, the federal government is overseeing consent agreements with BP, including setting the fines.

Walter said she sees parallels to the debacle over water quality in Flint, Michigan, also overseen by Region 5 of the EPA.

“The main thing is that our drinking water is at risk,” she said. “When you have basically a very small fine, it does not tell BP that they need to do a whole lot more. The bottom line is it’s our drinking water, and there are chemicals going into it that the system cannot identify or remove. That was the big problem in Flint.”

BP and the EPA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Marsh and other local activists are featured in an exhibit that opened at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography July 21, sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other partners, exploring the impact of petroleum on the Chicago area. Sweeping aerial shots show the expansive BP refinery and the area where petroleum coke from refining has been stored and processed, while portraits of local residents and activists depict the community impact of the industry.

Local benefits

The residents who filed the public comments are asking that the fines be used directly for beneficial projects in the surrounding area, rather than going into larger state and federal coffers.

The residents are also calling for the creation of Supplemental Environmental Projects or SEPs, a provision often included in settlements where the polluter pays for restoration or other projects to help atone for the damage it caused. The recent proposed settlements do not include SEPs.

Residents of Northwest Indiana and the Southeast Side of Chicago have been unhappy with past, unrelated SEP arrangements where they felt funding did not go to projects most local or relevant to those directly affected by the pollution that sparked the agreements. They think BP should be forced to invest in targeted, local efforts.

“If they do fine them, how is that going to benefit the community? Where is that money going? That’s the mystery,” said Marsh, who lives near the refinery and has spearheaded a grassroots effort to build and maintain a bird sanctuary on the coast there.

“They can use this money for state parks or national parks anywhere, meanwhile here we are struggling on the lakefront, and we can’t get any money” for local development, she continued. “I can’t get money for the Hammond bird sanctuary – I can’t get a dime. The money isn’t going to the areas where they’re actually polluting.”

‘Doing it on our own’

Marsh said the EPA should have done better public outreach about the proposed fines for BP, and held public meetings to discuss the issue. She said she just learned about the proposed final orders and the fact that a public comment period was open from a story in the Northwest Indiana Times.

She said the residents prepared their statement with “no lawyers or anything – just us – we worked on it a whole week, all day long just editing and editing and editing,” submitting the comments shortly before the deadline.

Blake-King has lived in the area for four decades and is a member of the Calumet Project, a citizen group that focuses on economic development and the environment.

“BP is just not a good corporate citizen,” she said, citing the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. “And I don’t even understand the government anymore. They’re sleeping with all these corporate companies, letting them get away with murder, they know they’re killing us. It’s just a slap in the face to the residents of this area who have tried to live along with these people – they just don’t listen.

“I thank God for the people in the trenches who are making an effort to be advocates, who are up all night fighting this. We do it from our hearts because we care about our community.”

One thought on “Activists say regulators going too easy on Chicago-area BP refinery

  1. I am grateful for this media report. The status of our water is a criitical environmental issue . This article clearly states and explains difficult concepts regarding regulatory efforts and even more importantly tells us about the work of citizens standing up to protect us all, role models we can follow . Thanks.