A View From the Cheap Seats

August 23, 2007

Trib Backs Down on BP

Filed under: BP,Environment,National,State — trzupek @ 8:25 pm

Hooray! It’s about time. You’d never know it, based on the headline, but today’s story in the Trib (“BP backs down on dumping”) represents a victory for reason. Hopefully the Rahm Emanuels and Dick Durbins of the world will follow suit and move on to their next Vitally Important Cause.

How is this a victory for reason, you wonder? Because the Trib finally backed off and, with the Trib backing off, there is hope that the pols who have marched in lockstep with them will as well. And yeah, the media giant was terribly smug about backing off, but we’ll take whatever we can get. Michael Hawthorne can claim to be Captain Planet if he wants, as long as the end result is the right one.

BP really didn’t say anything substantively different today than the company has said all along. They have always said that they will meet existing permits limits, the vast majority of the time. All the company did, with this latest press release, is to change the way that they make the point and – for whatever reason – the point finally got through to Hawthorne and the Trib.

The limits that everyone was SOOOO worried about are what are called maximum daily discharge limits. Those limits are far, far above what any waste treatment plant operator actually discharges on a daily basis. Why do these limits exist? For two reasons: 1) mother nature can be a bitch, and 2) EPA doesn’t like to write permits that no one can comply with. Let me explain.

When there is a heavy rainfall, for a sustained period of time, water treatment plant capacity can be swamped. These plants utilize huge tanks and ponds to process sludge and sewage, but those tanks and ponds can only hold so much. At some point, if the rainfall is heavy enough, one is left with a choice: discharge water that is slightly dirtier than normally, or let the tanks overflow and release raw sewage into the waterways. (And, by the by, Chicago treatment plants are notorious for the latter – which is why we get those lovely fecal coloform events – but Richie Daley seems to forget about that somehow).

EPA encourages operators to discharge slightly less clean water, instead of dumping sludge directly into waterways. Thus we have the rarely-employed Maximum Daily Discharge Limit, contained in every wastewater permit. BP has continually tried to explain this to Hawthorne, but the reporter has continually refused to acknowledge that a “permitted increase” in the maximum allowed does not relate to an “actual increase”.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Calumet Plant, for example has a maximum discharge limit of over 89,000 pounds of solids per day. But, in 2006, the plant discharged an average of 12,124 pounds of solids per day. That’s typical of the way that MWRD, BP and every wastewater treatment plant works.

But now, today, Hawthorne and the Trib have tacitly acknowledged the way that environmental regulation actually works. By not challenging BP’s pledge, and continuing their bone-headed call for a modification of the facility’s permit limits, they’re accepting reason. And yeah, they are doing so without much grace, but we’ll take it. As long as reason wins in the end, the score doesn’t matter.

(To read the story, as it should have been written, go to the Hawthorne Watch page).



  1. BP’s announcement came just an hour before U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, (D-Chicago) was going to announce a public pressure campaign against BP’s top 20 investors.

    Further adding to the intrigue was a study “made available to” Crain’s Chicago Business suggesting that BP was costing itself a great deal of good public image when other anti-pollution options were readily accessible at relatively little cost. BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone said “we’re not aware of any technology that will get us to those limits but we’ll work to develop a project that allows us to do so.”

    According to the Tetra Tech study reviewed by Crain’s, however, several types of anti-pollution devices have been employed in other facilities would remove ammonia and suspended solids from waste water “estimated to cost less than $30 (million) to $40 million.”


    Comment by Chicagoist — August 25, 2007 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  2. Business guru and author Peter Drucker understood that a business could contribute nothing to society if it wasn’t profitable. But he also believed that free enterprise was defensible only if it was good for society.

    Comment by Chicagoist — August 25, 2007 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

  3. Just so everyone is clear, the water treatment plant in question removes the vast majority of ammonia and solids present in the influent, down to levels of 9 ppm and 30 ppm, respectively, leaving an effluent that is over 99.9% water. So yes, there is plenty of technology to clean up these pollutants. We know this because BP’s already using such technology.

    The question is not: why won’t BP clean up the ammonia and solids. They are. The question is rather: is there technology that will do even better for this waste stream? Statements that imply the company is “dumping” ammonia and solids into the lake without treatment are just plain false, just as such a statement would be untrue for any other wastewater treatment plant.

    Comment by trzupek — August 25, 2007 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

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