Community continues to eye refinery permits

2011-11-20T00:00:00Z 2012-01-30T14:50:18Z Community continues to eye refinery permitsBy Bowdeya Tweh, (219) 933-3316
November 20, 2011 12:00 am  • 

WHITING | Environmentalists, community members and regulators have a message for BP: We'll be watching.

The fervor and outrage over the company's Canadian crude expansion project at the Whiting Refinery has died down since the project was announced in 2006. But in interviews, many continued to voice concerns about air and water emissions and process safety.

During an interview and refinery tour earlier this month, facility personnel and company officials said they are committed to meeting regulatory requirements and operating safely during the project and after.

"The process safety index for the refinery — a measure of the relative severity of process-related events — is at a three-year low," said BP spokesman Brad Etlin. "Despite this improvement, we will not let up, and will continue to find ways to improve process safety further."

Some aren't as confident in the company's ability to do that and aren't thrilled about future prospects.

"I said 'That's it for us, that's our death warrant,'" said East Chicago resident Barbara Perez, recalling the early days of the project. "We have children that are starting to get more asthma and seizures and we understand it's not just BP Amoco, but it's not going to get any better."

Perez, an Inland Steel retiree who has lived in the Marktown neighborhood since the 1980s, said she hopes the company takes more precautions to make sure refining processes can be done safely or alert people when something is going wrong.

Since May 1, 2008, BP has reported about 50 process incidents to environmental regulators. The company reported issues ranging from hydrogen sulfide flaring and small oil spills in Lake Michigan to gasoline being discharged as a result of pipeline corrosion, according to data on the National Response Center website.

The litigation story

Courtrooms and the court of public opinion have played as significant a role in the company's recent environmental history.

Key to the refinery's operation and expansion, all three environmental permits — one water and two air permits — have been scrutinized in both venues.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued modified air permits to BP on May 1, 2008, to allow modernization project construction to begin and on June 16, 2008, to allow the refinery to continue operating after the project's completion. IDEM also renewed BP's water permit in 2007, which increased the amount of ammonia and total suspended solids it could discharge daily and on a monthly average. Standards for other pollutants, including chromium and sulfide, remained the same.

More than a year later, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected some of the permit-related issues raised by petitioners, and granted others. The federal agency said IDEM didn't adequately respond to public comment and that BP may have neglected to include emissions from sources including flares and when coke drums are sprayed with water to release the coke byproduct.

BP currently is in negotiations with IDEM, EPA and various environmental groups to settle issues tied to the operating permit.

All parties declined to comment on the negotiations, but the final product likely will be a consent decree, which could include a fine.

Four administrative petitions challenging various aspects of air permits IDEM issued to BP's Whiting Refinery remain open before a state administrative court. Environmental Law Judge Catherine Gibbs, of the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication, said settlement negotiations are ongoing.

The refinery is among a handful in the country that continue to operate under a 2001 consent degree with the EPA resolving alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

Air of concern

When the project was expected to be completed in 2011, total regulated refinery emissions were expected to decrease 7 percent from 2006 levels, according to projections the company released in 2007. Emissions of larger particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and lead were expected to increase but remain below permitted levels.

Ann Alexander, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said under current air permitting rules, the company appeared to use "fuzzy math" in its air permits to undercount emissions increases from certain sources or overestimate pollution improvements over a period of time.

"Netting is colossally complex, and that means that picking apart someone's netting is challenging and colossally difficult," Alexander said.

Based on information available at the time, IDEM issued BP a permit that met state and federal rules "and was protective of human health and the environment," IDEM spokesman Rob Elstro said in an email.

Progress, issues continue

Increasing wastewater storage capacity, installing a new brine treatment plant and improving the ability to strip ammonia out of water before it's discharged all are part of efforts to help the refinery stay in compliance with water permits, company officials said.

Dave Moy, operations specialist at the BP Whiting Refinery's lakefront wastewater treatment plant, said wastewater treatment is crucial to the refinery because it provides the ability for operations to run without interruption.

"If we can't do our work here, I don't care how shiny the new coker is, it's not going to run," Moy said.

Since the refinery's water permit was issued, IDEM spokeswoman Amber Finkelstein said out of 5,570 monitoring results sent to IDEM, the company reported 14 effluent violations. She said BP is working with IDEM to resolve outstanding issues.

BP also has a waiver to emit more mercury into the Great Lakes than what is normally permitted under Great Lakes water quality rules. It is seeking to renew its streamlined mercury variance before the current one and water permit expire July 31, 2012.

BP Whiting Refinery water treatment adviser Ramachandra Achar said the variance is important because the firm doesn't have enough time to design, build and implement a solution that would reduce the amount of mercury in discharge to meet current limits. He said the refinery discharges the equivalent of one tablespoon of mercury in about 7 billion gallons of treated water a year.

Even if mercury is diluted in large bodies of water, the problem is that the toxin can accumulate in fish tissue, said Albert Ettinger, a Chicago-area lawyer who represents the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Sierra Club, Hoosier Environmental Council and other environmental groups regarding water quality matters. And if people eat fish, that can be harmful to humans.

"You can't rely on the theory that dilution is the solution to pollution," Ettinger said.

BP's Achar said the majority of mercury in Lake Michigan comes from air deposits from coal-fired power plants.

Company officials hope research later this year from the Purdue University Calumet Water Institute and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois can show an economically viable way to further reduce particulate and dissolved mercury in wastewater.

"It's not an us versus them with the regulators," Moy said. "We just need the time and space to meet the conditions."

Moy said complying with environmental rules is akin to being a responsible citizen in the community.

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