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.