A View From the Cheap Seats

August 8, 2007

Much Ado About Next to Nothing

Filed under: BP,Environment,National,State — trzupek @ 8:52 pm


Much Ado About Next to Nothing

By Rich Trzupek

The following letter was sent to Senators Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, courtesy of your humble correspondent. No response is expected, but it sure feels good to vent.

Dear Senators Durbin and Obama,

The open letter, which will appear in all editions of The Examiner on Aug. 8, has been written in regard to the controversy surrounding BP Amoco’s Whiting, Indiana refinery. You have both expressed grave reservations about the project and I would hope you would be willing to share your concerns with our readers.

Before posing some questions, I should familiarize you with The Examiner and me. The Examiner serves eight northwest Chicago suburbs: Bartlett, St. Charles, Streamwood, South Elgin, Carol Stream, Campton Hills, Hanover Park and Wayne. Our total circulation is over 40,000 households.

I have been a columnist for The Examiner for over seven years. Journalism is, however, a sideline. I am a chemist by degree and have been employed as an environmental professional for over 20 years. In that capacity, I have lectured on environmental topics at several universities and have authored an environmental handbook, published by McGraw-Hill. I hope you will agree that I am qualified to discuss the BP issue, and I am pleased that I have a forum to do so publicly.

With that out of the way, let us move to the issue at hand. Both of you have joined the chorus of voices decrying the BP project and the waste water discharges to Lake Michigan associated with it. You claim that the increase in ammonia and solids discharged represent a serious threat to the environment and to the people who utilize this precious resource. I am not, of course, using your exact words here, but I hope you will agree that I am conveying the spirit of your concerns.

As an environmental professional I am curious: how did you reach these conclusions? Surely you are aware that the regulatory system in this country allows for these types of increases, in isolated instances, when such increases are tied to increased industrial activity. BP is certainly not the first, nor the last, company to apply for and receive permission to increase its wastewater discharge within the context of stringent state and federal guidelines.

And I would hope that you realize that an isolated discharge increase does not relate to an overall, lake-wide increase. There are other factors at work. Plants shut down. Regulatory standards get tighter. The entire regulatory system, as a whole, is designed to ensure that water quality continues to improve.

That system has been enormously effective. Do you deny this? Do you not recognize that fair, yet strict, application of this regulatory plan has resulted in a tremendous reduction in air and water pollution over the past 30 years, since the original Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed? Have you seen the data? EPA makes these records available to the public. Did you review it before you spoke?

Why did this project, designed to increase domestic energy production grab your attention? BP is, after all, one of thousands of permit holders in the Lake Michigan states. In Cook County, Illinois alone, 699 industrial sources hold similar permits, along with 162 water systems. BP is not the largest source of wastewater discharges into the lake, nor is it the only source to ask for an increase.

So why, I wonder, does this particular project trouble you so? The obvious answer seems to be: prurient, political self-interest. But, giving you the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it’s merely ignorance. In the interests of fairness, I would like to ask you to answer the following specific questions for our readers:

1.) EPA tracks and regulates hundreds of water pollutants and ranks the ones that are of concern for a specific body of water. Where do the two pollutants the BP proposes to increase, ammonia and solids, rank in this hierarchy?

2.) How do BP’s discharges of ammonia and solids compare to naturally occurring levels in Lake Michigan?

3.) How do BP’s discharges of ammonia and solids compare to other sources, including industrial, water systems and agricultural runoff?

4.) How has water quality in Lake Michigan changed in the last 30 years, and in the last 10 years?

5.) How have discharge limits changed in the last 10 years? Have they grown more stringent, and resulted in an overall decrease in water pollution discharges, or have they gotten more liberal and resulted in an overall increase?

I do not, of course, expect you to actually answer any of these specific questions. The answers would undoubtedly be too embarrassing. I rather expect you will provide our readers with canned rhetoric that sounds good, but says nothing, or-more likely- that you will ignore this letter altogether. There is no political advantage to be gained by actually diving into the details.

Allow me to head-off one criticism: I do not, nor have ever, worked as a paid consultant to BP Amoco. My interests involve equity, not profit.

You will both continue to claim to be statesmen. You will say that you are protecting the public.

I believe that you, and many others, are doing quite the opposite in this case. You are encouraging irrational fear and ignorance, instead of standing up for reason. You are undermining a system that has-whether you can admit it or not-been tremendously effective in improving the quality of our environment. You have, in short, let your constituents down, and I for one think that’s a shame.


Rich Trzupek
Examiner Publications


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