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The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is looking to fine BP after it discharged about five times more total suspended solids of industrial waste into Lake Michigan than allowed this summer.

IDEM sent BP a letter last week stating "violations were observed and will be referred to the enforcement section." The state agency said the company discharged "brown and turbid effluent" into the lake, the main source of drinking water in the Chicago area, and faulted BP's operation of the wastewater treatment plant. 

Under state law, the agency could impose a base fine of between $1,000 to $25,000 a day. Fines can vary based on a matrix that looks at factors such as history of non-compliance and what was done after the violation.

BP is allowed to discharge up to 5,694 pounds of industrial waste a day in Lake Michigan, but exceeded its permit three times: on July 14, August 1 and August 2, according to IDEM. The former Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting sent 26,621 pounds of total suspended solids into the lake on Aug. 2, about five times the limit.

Refinery workers reduced the amount being discharged partly by removing solids from the wastewater treatment plant, drying them out and sending them to a landfill in Newton County after initially telling inspectors the waste would be slowly reintroduced into the treatment system, according to IDEM.

"This matter will be processed as an enforcement case for appropriate action," Northwest Regional Office Deputy Director Rick Massoels wrote in the letter to BP. 

Massoels questioned BP's characterization of the discharge as an upset, or equipment failure.

"An upset does not include noncompliance to the extent caused by operational error, improperly designed treatment facilities, inadequate treatment facilities, lack of preventative maintenance, or careless or improper operation," he wrote. "IDEM does not consider this situation an 'upset.'"

BP Whiting Refinery Manager Don Porter recently apologized to the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce for the discharge, which took place after BP started up a new dissolved nitrogen flotation unit in its wastewater treatment plant to remove dissolved organics in the wastewater. The new equipment went online in May and was required by a 2012 EPA agreement that BP invest more than $400 million in the refinery to cut emissions and control pollution.

“We had difficulty starting that up, and I want to apologize,” Porter told the chamber on Sept. 1. “That’s not what we strive to do, but we got that straightened out. Now it operates very well, more efficiently than before.”

IDEM inspectors faulted BP's response to the discharge, describing records, reports and laboratory as "marginal." 

Massoels wrote in his letter that much of the information workers gave to inspectors on site was inconsistent with what was in the reports, which were sometimes incomplete. Two mercury tests from July 28 and August 1 also had to be invalidated.

"The discarded results would have shown elevated amounts of mercury compared to normal operations, but would not have caused an exceedance at the time, as the permit requires compliance with the limitation to be based on a 12-month rolling average," he wrote.

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.