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).