Plant impact stretches past refinery gates

2011-11-20T00:00:00Z 2011-11-21T11:20:06Z Plant impact stretches past refinery gatesBy Bowdeya Tweh, (219) 933-3316
November 20, 2011 12:00 am  • 

WHITING | Many Northwest Indiana residents remain divided on how beneficial BP's multibillion-dollar Whiting Refinery expansion is for the region.

The refinery spans three communities — Whiting, East Chicago and Hammond — but region residents who support the project say the impacts go far beyond the property.

Refinery employment is just fewer than 1,900 people, but at various points of the project, thousands of contractors from the region and around the Midwest have been working to install, remove or fix equipment.

Randy Palmateer, business manager of the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council, said environmental upgrades are important for the companies implementing them, but also for the welders, pipefitters, electricians and ironworkers who work on those projects.

"A lot of our industry in Northwest Indiana is working hard to meet the environmental standards put forth by the government," Palmateer said. Typically, "the higher the quota, the more work for my guys."

Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura, who worked at the refinery for 22 years, said he's glad the company has been a behemoth of an employer and taxpayer in Whiting since the days when BP was Standard Oil and, later, Amoco.

The refinery is the reason most of the available apartments in the city are rented and why he's excited the city's assessed value could approach $600 million in a few years from its level of about $375 million now.

"BP's health is a top priority for my administration," Stahura said. "But for us to partner in a project, it has to be good for the community."

Trouble in paradise?

Stephanie and Adam Madison moved into their Whiting home from Robertsdale in 2007 and they both fell in love with the 5,000-resident community.

The organizations. The relationships with people. They found the ideal place to raise a family.

"And now we're talking about leaving," Stephanie Madison said.

If the market were stronger, their house would be for sale. Instead they have to stick it out — at least until things get better.

The on-again, off-again noise from the refinery ranges from an audible hum to a sleep-interrupting plane-engine takeoff sound. Company officials found the sources of the problem — fans important to the refinery's power system — caused the noise, which varies with wind direction and temperature. Officials said they are in the process of making the repairs to reduce the noise.

Adam Madison said it's tough for people in certain areas to understand what he and his wife are going through because they see that the company pumps a lot of money into the community.

"Of course I want the community I live in to thrive, but we have to be partners," Stephanie Madison said.

Black smoke pouring from flares, noise and smells from living near a truck-fueling rack, seeing BP or city employees doing nearby water quality tests; Joe and Dorthea Zrnchik have seen, heard and felt the impact of the Whiting Refinery for years.

But why move? Joe Zrnchik said he has lived on the same city block his whole life. He said he built the home 42 years ago, and to get the same home elsewhere and move his family's things would cost upward of $200,000.

The married couple's children already have left, and grandchildren often ask how they can tolerate the smell and the noise.

"I'm going to be 75 years old (in April); I sure as hell don't need to buy another house or I can't build one," Joe Zrnchik said. "I'm lucky to stand on my own two feet."

Zrnchik said he's a BP shareholder and it's important for the business to be viable, but it's difficult to support the refinery when there are legacy environmental issues from BP and industrial sources in the community. The couple's mothers, Dorthea's father and Joe's grandmother have died of cancer, which Zrnchik and his wife attribute to exposure to heavy industry for a large portion of their lives.

Winning people back

The city of Whiting meets with the company monthly to talk about strategic plans, and an important near-term objective for BP is to build more office space on the refinery's north side.

Stahura said people in the area have been embittered by the refinery, but most people appreciate and support the development. He concedes the company hasn't been the perfect corporate neighbor, but if "I had a flood or collapse in a street today, they would have a crew out here in 20 minutes with all the help we needed."

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