Sun-Times Says Boycott BP

Chicago area newspapers fight permit for new pollution

The Chicago Sun-Times called for a boycott of BP today in response to a permit the oil giant received in late June to significantly increase the amount of toxic waste it dumps into Lake Michigan every year.

“If BP insists on dumping more pollutants into our lake, it’s time for us to stop pumping its gas into our tanks,” reads the paper’s editorial. “We’re calling for an all-out boycott of BP gas.”

“Tens of thousands” of Chicagoans have protested the permit, which allows BP’s refinery in Whiting, Indiana, twenty miles from Chicago on the south shore of the lake, to discharge 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more suspended solids into the water annually. The facility also received an exemption from meeting tough limits on mercury pollution for the next five years. BP contends that it needs the permit (the first it has received since 1990) for a $3.8 billion expansion that will enable the refinery, already the largest in the Midwest, to process more heavy Canadian crude oil. The company has attempted to justify the expansion by pointing out that it will create eighty permanent jobs and 2,000 construction jobs; that its discharges meet or beat state and federal emissions standards; and that it will invest $150 million to improve its onsite wastewater treatment facility.

Since the Indiana Department of Environmental Management approved the permit in June, however, there has been what local newspapers variously describe as a “blitzkrieg,” “firestorm,” “avalanche,” and “groundswell” of protest from around Lake Michigan. But the opposition has been fiercest in Chicago, where mayor Richard Daley and others have threatened legal action to block the permit, and are leaning on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reverse its statement that the new pollution limits would not violate the Clean Water Act. In late July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution urging Indiana to reconsider the permit.

The Sun-Times boycott comes just one day after BP and Indiana regulators for the first time “softened their defense” of the permit, saying they would review suggestions from Chicago officials, the EPA, and environmental groups about technologies that could reduce the Whiting refinery’s pollution. Mayor Daley has urged his constituents to hold off on the boycott pending a “credible, independent” evaluation ordered by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels this week. But local newspapers have been adamant in their opposition to allowing more toxic waste.

The Sun-Times has now published three editorials railing against BP’s new permit. “Even if the giant oil company proves that the extra waste it will be dumping is no threat to aquatic life or humans,” the paper wrote in July, “we must have zero tolerance for the release of any additional pollution into our precious lake waters.”

Lake Michigan supplies most of the region’s drinking water and is popular for fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation. Although BP denies that increasing its toxic discharges will “damage” the environment or harm individuals, all of the effluents covered in the permit pose hazards. Ammonia and suspended solids have received the lion’s share of attention - ammonia can cause algal blooms that kill fish, and suspended solids can work their way into the food chain via the aquatic life that swim in polluted water. A third and even more toxic effluent, for which BP received a discharge exemption, has received much less attention. Mercury, one of the most strictly regulated environmental toxins, can cause brain and nervous system damage in even low dosages. The new permit allows the Whiting refinery to continue dumping two pounds into the lake annually until 2012, when it must meet federal standards that will drop the limit 8/100th of a pound.

Both the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune have done an impressive job covering the various and far-flung protests that erupted after the permit was granted, but only the latter has given any significant attention to the environmental science behind BP’s toxic waste. In late July, the Tribune published an excellent investigation highlighting the “little-noticed” mercury exemption contained in BP’s permit. Reporter Michael Hawthorne points out that the Whiting refinery is only one of two polluters that still dump mercury into Lake Michigan, but he also gives respectable balance to the story by pointing out that the amount released is small compared to that which falls into the water from air pollution. In addition, Hawthorne provides a thorough review of all the other nasty chemicals coming out of the refinery.

It would be nice to see more technically inclined articles such as this, but credit must still be given to Chicago papers for mounting such aggressive opposition to BP’s plans, and for covering all the related protests in such depth. The Sun-Times’ boycott call follows the lead of the city’s most powerful alderman, Edward M. Burke. Two weeks ago, Burke introduced a plan in the City Council that would stop the city’s use of roughly ninety-seven BP gas station credit cards. Burke is also trying to block three major banks that have ties with BP from receiving lucrative city bond deals. “The stakes are high,” the Sun-Times reported, with millions of dollars on the line.

The Tribune has not been quite as outspoken or prolific as the Sun-Times in opposing BP’s permit-it has published only one editorial on the matter-but still takes a zero-tolerance position. “We like jobs. We like gasoline,” the paper wrote in July, “But this page’s policy on dumping any more pollution into Lake Michigan isn’t tangled in skeins of regulation or submerged in legal jargon. It’s this: No. No more polluting of the lake.” The Tribune should also get credit for providing an open and balanced forum to community members: it has published letters from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Petroleum Council, and BP, all supporting the refinery’s permit. And the Chicago press has not been alone in its coverage. The Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana, a blue-collar town that has, historically, provided much of the Whiting refinery’s work force, has published over two dozen articles about the BP permit and consequent protest. This includes an editorial that chided Indiana regulators for allowing their colleagues in Illinois to take the lead in protecting Lake Michigan.

Unfortunately, the protests surrounding the Whiting refinery have not received a lot of attention from the national media, save for a handful of wire articles and a good round-up by The New York Times. But the Chicago-area press has done an excellent job of both fleshing out the story and spurring opposition to more toxic waste. BP and Indiana are now reconsidering the pollution permit, but the oil company has not committed to any compromise and insists it will go forward with the refinery’s expansion. Thankfully, as evidenced by the boycott, the press seems poised to keep up the good fight and not let the decades spent cleaning up Lake Michigan go to waste. A good place to start is with more scientifically minded evaluations of the technologies environmentalists and others have proposed to capture or reduce BP’s noxious pollution.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.