Michael Hawthorne, a featured environmental correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, isn’t the only reporter to do a questionable job when dealing with environmental issues. But he is the most prominent herebouts. Since the Trib isn’t willing to edit him, I figure that I can provide the service.
September 14, 2007
“River’s link to illness studied”
Halle-fricking-lujah! Or, to quote my daughter (with whom I only communicate by text message these days): OMG!
Here we have an environmental article that is accurate, chock full of relevant facts fairly presented, is NOT hysterical, is NOT shrill, does NOT pander to environmental groups, but is rather a thoughtful, reasoned presentation of all sides of what is – and what has been – a very complex issue.
I have only two questions:
1) Who is this guy?
2) What has the Tribune done with the real Michael Hawthorne?
September 6, 2007
It’s quiet. Too quiet….
It’s been over week since the last bit of Hawthoganda in the Trib, which leads one to two possible conclusions: 1) our favorite cub reporter is on vacation, in some garden idyll, where the sun always shines, no one ever uses the restroom and nature’s beauty is thus never despoiled by foul waste treatment plants, or 2) he’s busy working on his next hatchet job. History suggests the latter.
Since the stats tell me that this is the most popular spot on my blog, I need to write about something Hawthorne-related in the meanwhile. So I will take advantage of the quiet interlude to comment that my biggest problem with Mikey isn’t his obvious bias. In a way, I’d rather know where a reporter is coming from. We all have our private points-of-view and it’s easier for the clever reader (i.e., people who have not attended the Rahm Emanuel School For Public Service) to evaluate the veracity of a given story if they have a handle on the writer’s bias.
I’m not saying that the story itself should be blatantly biased, as Hawthorne’s are, I’m rather saying that understanding the motivations of the author helps the reader to better understand even the most even-handed pieces. As damaging as his pieces are, simply because so many readers are so unfamiliar with the topics of the environment and science, they are not at all damaging among the technically-informed minority. To us, Hawthorne’s work is simply ridiculous and is therefore easily dismissed.
The bigger issue with Hawthorne is that he is, in the opinion of your humble correspondent, a lazy reporter. Perhaps not lazy in the physical sense, as far as talking to people and gathering quotes and putting in time, but lazy in the intellectual sense. Everything about his stories suggests that they are spoon-fed to him by environmental groups and, trained puppy that he is, Hawthorne dutifully regurgitates the pabulum he’s been fed on the pages of the Trib.
How do I know this? Well I don’t know it for a fact, of course. I could not prove it. But if it quacks like an environmental group’s press release, and it smells like an environmental group’s press release, well – you can figure out the rest.
Neither the EPA nor industry uses words like “sludge”, or “soot” for example. Those are terms used by the environmental groups to describe what everyone else calls “solids” and “particulate matter”. Hawthorne almost always chooses the former over that latter.
Then there is the use of factoids. Hawthorne uses numbers and he uses them liberally. But, he only uses numbers support the central hypothesis of the day’s article. If he’s trying to prove that BP is killing the lake, then the only numbers he’ll use are ones that sound scary. If Midwest Gen is the target, then we’ll hear that Midwest Gen’s coal plants emit so many tons of “soot” per day. We won’t hear about how many tons they control, or how “soot” emissions have been reduced in the Chicagoland area.
If one selectively uses data, solely for the purpose of supporting a position, it seems obvious that one is no longer reporting, one is engaged in advertising. I understand that this is what environmental groups do. It’s also, to be fair, what industry groups do. And most of us understand that. But it’s impossible to understand why a reporter, who is supposed to be writing an unbiased, informative article would choose to do the same, or how his editors could let him get away with it.
Look, it’s not hard to get the facts. If you have read all that I have written about BP, understand this: none of the data I quoted came from BP (I have not spoken to anyone at the plant, nor do I know anyone with the company at all) and none of it came from environmental groups. All of it came from publicly available information that is duly collected and organized by USEPA, Illinois EPA and other public entities. It’s really very easy to do, if one knows where to look and has the patience to crunch the data.
Hawthorne, time and again, takes the easy way out. He may ask industry or the EPA for their views, but it’s obvious that he quickly dismisses those views. And all we are left with to read is whatever he has been told to write by his Big Green buddies.
If that’s the way the Trib is going to cover environmental issues, the company could save itself some money by cutting out the middleman. Just get rid of Hawthorne and refer readers to the Sierra Club website. At least that would be more honest than what the paper is doing now.
August 28, 2007
“BP gets break on soot limits” (Part 2)
My older and wiser brother Lar (as opposed to my older and crazier brother Gene) has a theory about Michael Hawthorne’s BP coverage: the oil giant must have done something to piss the reporter off. A bad tank of gas? Cold coffee? Enforcement of the “no shoes, no service” policy? God knows what it was, but somehow, somewhere, Hawthorne decided to launch a vendetta, and this story is about all the proof one needs to reach that conclusion.
This one is so bad, for so many reasons, that it boggles the imagination. There is nothing that Hawthorne says about BP that could not be said of literally hundreds of sources in the Greater Chicagoland area. You could pull out the letters “BP” and insert any other large industrial plant’s name, or “mobile sources”, or “off road sources”, or “area sources” and reach the same conclusions.
The truth is that BP is one of many, many sources of air pollution in the region. The truth is that air quality in the region has steadily improved for over 30 years. The truth is that Chicagoland meets EPA’s standards for clean air for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead, particulate matter ten microns in size or less (except for a chunk of the southeast side) and ozone (based on the old, 1 hour standard). Chicagoland does not meet EPA’s new clean air standards for particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size) – which BP’s emissions have little to do with – and for ozone (based on an 8 hour average) – which BP’s emissions have almost nothing to do with.
It is remarkable, therefore, that anyone could write a story that appears – to the uneducated reader – to create a fantasyland where Chicago’s air is so dirty that you’re risking your life by breathing and that BP is solely and wholly responsible for this wretched state of affairs. It’s not a news story. It’s a Sierra Club press release. What the hell is it doing in the Tribune?
With that off my chest, let’s talk about “soot”.
Hawthorne blends a number of rotten ingredients in this stew of distortion. There are facts here, but the facts are used in such a disjointed way that it’s impossible for the average reader to sort out the truth. But we will try folks. We will try.
Yes, BP did receive a variance (not an exemption) from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, on July 5, 2007. You can download the actual text of the variance here: http://www.in.gov/idem/programs/air/index.html (hit “Variance for BP Products North America Inc.” to download the document).
Now, if you read the document, you will see it actually does contain the words:
“Compliance with these current limits pending the rule change would impose an extreme hardship on BP, because the currently available information indicates that compliance with these emission limits is neither technically nor economically feasible.”
It also contains these words:
“The impact of the variance on ambient air quality will be negligible given that the requested emission limit changes do not represent increases in actual emissions, but rather a more accurate quantification of already existing emissions.” (Emphasis added).
And these words:
“There are number of other emission units at the Whiting refinery that have either been shut down or that have been required to cease fuel oil burning since the SIP was adopted and these changes have resulted in actual reductions of emissions.” (Emphasis added).
Here’s the facts folks:
1. We are only talking about units fired by natural gas and/or refinery gas. There are no cases of anyone, anywhere using any add-on controls to reduce the tiny amount of particulate matter that is created when you burn gaseous fuels efficiently. Suggesting that there is anything else that could be done, or should be done, to control particulate from these sources is incredibly stupid. I am amazed that any environmental group would waste their time suggesting it, and I am even more amazed that one of the biggest newspapers in the nation doesn’t have the brains, will or resources to figure that out as well. It is truly mind-boggling.
2. This action does not represent any increase in emissions. None. Zero. Nada. Zip. It is, again, utterly ridiculous to represent it that way. This is about bookkeeping. Up to 1998, EPA told sources who burn gas to use a certain emission factor. This is the number that you use to calculate how much particulate you (theoretically) emit. Then, in 1998, they updated the emission factor, based on new data.
Previously, BP multiplied the millions of BTU’s of gas burned in the refinery by the number 0.004 (the old factor) to calculate their particulate emissions. Now, they will use the number 0.0075 (the new factor) for multiplication purposes. Certain units were permitted before 1998, so this is nothing more than cleaning up the permit to reflect the new math. Emissions have not actually changed, out there in the little place we like to call “reality”.
3. There is nothing unique to BP here. People clean up their permits all the time. Every single source that burns gas has had to (or will have to) make a switch in factors and, if those factors were in their permit, modify their permit in a similar manner.
4. EPA did not, as Hawthorne claims, conclude that “refineries emit more soot that previously thought”. That is an utterly asinine thing to say. EPA concluded that everyone who burns more natural gas emits slightly more particulate than they previously thought. They reached this conclusion in 1998. EPA also concluded that particulate emissions from the burning of natural gas are so ridiculously tiny that it would be utterly pointless to do anything but require clean, complete combustion to “control” them.
I could go on, but I hope that you get the idea by now. Speaking as an environmental professional and a scientist, this was as bad of a hatchet job of the truth as I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying a lot, for I’ve seen a lot of bad environmental reporting. Nobody got a “break”. Nobody increased emissions. This was about accounting, not the environment. Period. I don’t know if a story like this is libelous, in the legal sense, but it sure as hell oughta be.
August 28, 2007
“BP gets break on soot limits” (Part 1)
Reading this story, I was reminded of the time that my daughter, who was all of 1 year old at the time, figured out how to remove her own diaper and discovered the smelly treasures that lay within. My (ex)wife and I stared, open-mouth at the result: brown, stinking streaks covering every inch of my daughter’s crib, the walls and her body, as Sara giggled with glee.
And the question that leapt to mind at that moment was exactly the same as the one that formed when I read this latest bit of Hawthoganda: when there’s that much crap to clean up, where do you begin?
Let’s start breaking it down:
Toxics – Context
For many, the most troubling part of this article is the statement that the company released more than 574,000 pounds of toxic chemicals in 2005. Sounds like a big number, doesn’t it? Let’s put that number in a little bit of context, by asking a few pertinent questions:
A) Is this amount unusual for a refinery?
No. It’s entirely typical. There is nothing unusual, or “special” about this number in terms of refineries. Further, though they are the largest of the three remaining Chicago area refineries, BP emits the lowest amount of toxics of the three, according to USEPA’s latest inventory of Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions.
B) Is BP a big toxic emitter in Lake County, Indiana, compared to other industries?
They are number 3, accounting for approximately 9% of the over 6 million pounds per year of HAPs currently emitted by industrial sources in Lake County, Indiana.
C) How about industries in the Chicago area, as a whole?
If we start in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and we work our way down to Porter County, Indiana, including the 6 county metropolitan Chicago area, we roughly define what we may call “greater Chicagoland”. In this region, we’ll find over 54 million pounds per year of HAPs emissions associated with industry. Thus BP’s contribution to industrial HAP emissions in the region is about 1%.
D) And if we look at everyone, not just industry, how does that look?
If we include ALL sources of HAP emissions in the region, we’re up over 210 million pounds per year. So, on a regional basis, BP accounts for about 0.27% of total HAP emissions. The biggest single source of HAPs, region-wide, are mobile sources (cars, trucks, etc.) which account for about 74 million pounds per year, according to USEPA’s last HAP emissions inventory.
We can argue whether or not 0.27% is significant enough to worry about, but shouldn’t we have that discussion with some sort of context? As written, with only that seemingly “huge” number staring you in the face, it sounds like BP is poisoning the Midwest. In fact, the plant is just one piece of a picture that is much, much larger. Shouldn’t readers know that?
It is easy to cherry-pick any one particular project and make it seem like the end of the world. Northwest Crematory in DuPage County is down for 6.7 million pounds of HAPs per year in the inventory. Koppers Industry in Cicero accounts for 1.7 million pounds per year. There is nothing difficult about picking out a plant and making them look bad. That’s not journalism, that’s propaganda.
Toxics – Controls
One would assume, based on this article, that BP is arrogantly refusing to do anything to control its toxics emissions. Not so. The vast majority of its toxics come from two types of sources at this (or any) refinery: combustion sources and storage tanks. Both types of sources are controlled. Indeed, they must be controlled, in order to meet permit limits and federal standards for oil refineries.
Combustion sources are required to burn their fuel as completely as possible, for it’s incomplete combustion that creates excess amounts of toxics. All refineries burn their fuel as completely as possible, simply because it’s good economic sense to do so, and you’ll find few industries that watch their operational costs more than petrochem.
But, even if one does burn fuel as completely and cleanly as possible, EPA assumes that there will be trace amounts of toxic compounds remaining. When you report your emissions, you are required to calculate (not measure) these assumed emissions, using standard EPA emission factors. On that basis, everyone emits toxics. There are factors for mercury, lead, ammonia and benzene associate with the burning of natural gas. So, using Hawthorne’s logic, your household furnace and water heater are also sources of toxic emissions. Not much, but the Trib carefully avoids any mention of actual amounts of these compounds, so why should I mention them?
The large toxic numbers calculated for BP’s combustion process are not a reflection of bad controls, they are a reflection of just how much gas a refinery – any refinery – burns. Apply the same arithmetic to any large combustion source, be it a power plant, ethanol plant, refinery, or anything else, and you’ll get big numbers. That’s a fact of life.
On to storage tanks. You will not be surprised to learn that BP operates a bunch of large storage tanks. If you’ve ever driven past the refinery, you may have noticed the tank farm. These tanks store the products that the refinery makes. Some of these products, like gasoline, contain HAPs. Benzene, toluene and xylene (all of which are HAPs) are a part of gasoline, and always have been.
When regulating storage tanks, EPA’s objective is to ensure that as little vapor escapes as possible. The best technology to do this is the floating roof storage tank. The roofs on these tanks float on the liquid surface below, in order to keep vapor formation to a minimum. The edges of the roofs are fitted with seals, so that vapor can’t get out that way. BP operates these types of tanks, which are considered best controls in the industry.
Still, something is going to escape, for no seal is perfect. EPA requires refineries to maintain these seals in good condition, which BP does. Yet, there is a computer program that calculates (again, not actually measures) emissions from storage tanks, even when they are properly controlled. Emissions are minimal, on a “per gallon” basis, but a refinery processes a lot of gallons. Therefore, when one runs the program, one calculates a whole bunch of emissions. Those emissions may or may not exist in real life. But it doesn’t matter, with regard to the central question: does BP control its toxics? Of course the company does. And they do so using the technology specified by EPA.
We must stop here for today. There is more to say about “soot”, but one can only clean up so much crap at a time, so we’ll have to save that piece for part 2, tomorrow.
August 25, 2007
“Drinking water unaffected by sewage release into lake”
A+ again. The story was presented in a responsible manner, and in reasonable context.No complaints.
There was no need, for example, to start a panic by pointing out that MWRD’s release contained – using the district’s own 2006 report as a basis – over 1.6 million pounds of solids and ammonia. It would have been unseemly to sensationalize the story that way.
There was no need to call those solids “tiny sludge particles”, or to say that they were “toxic”. That would be a distortion.
There was no need to point out that, according to MWRD’s 2006 report, their solids contain cyanide, as well as heavy metals like Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, Mercury, Nickel, Selenium and Silver. That would be irresponsible, especially if Hawthorne had selectively used that fact, without telling you how much cyanide and metals were in the discharge, and how those concentrations compare to naturally occurring levels and toxicity thresholds.
If Hawthorne had talked about this discharge in terms of giant numbers, or if he had used words like “sludge”, “toxic” and “heavy metals” in connection with this release, he would have been guilty of terribly irresponsible, biased reporting designed to prey on the worst fears of the community.
And we all know that a good journalist would never do that.
August 24, 2007
“Storm forces release of raw sewage into lake”
No problems, for a change. No hype. No hyperbole. A+ He could have easily talked about thousands of pounds of “sludge” and ammonia and “toxics”, but – for a change – Hawthorne presented the news in an entirely accurate, reasonable context.
Pity he can’t write a BP story that way.
August 23, 2007
“BP backs down on dumping”
Rather than go through the usual point by point, let’s just rewrite this one, shall we? Here’s the story, as it should have been written, without the slant and without the bias:
BP Promises to Meet Lower Limits Than Required
By Rich Trzupek
Responding to firestorm of criticism, BP formalized what has been standard environmental practice into a promise, announcing that it won’t dump more pollution into Lake Michigan.
The oil giant pledged to meet its existing permit limits, rather than adhere to the slightly more lenient state and federal standards contained in its new National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wastewater discharge permit.
“We will not make use of the higher discharge limits in our new permit,” BP American Chairman and President Bob Malone said in statement posted on the company’s web site. “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.”
Malone’s statement is consistent with the company’s previous assertions that it would rarely, if ever, need to take advantage of the maximum daily discharge limits allowed under the NPDES program. That is consistent with standard environmental practice.
The maximum discharge limit is normally only employed in the case of extreme stormwater events that swamp treatment plant capacity. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Calumet treatment plant, for example, is permitted to discharge up to 89,655 pounds per day of solids, but the plant’s average daily discharge of solids last year was 12,124 pounds.
Supporters of project said that BP’s proposed maximum discharge limits were insignificant compared to other sources of ammonia and solids in Lake Michigan. Pointing to hundreds of thousands of pounds generated by other industrial and natural sources each day, they claimed that BP’s maximum discharge of 1,584 pounds of ammonia and 4,925 pounds of solids would not affect water quality.
Opponents said that no increase, of any size, should be tolerated and claimed that BP’s project could endanger drinking water in the region.
Ammonia, if discharged in high enough concentrations, can cause algae blooms at the point of discharge. However, experts agree that the maximum ammonia concentration proposed in BP’s discharge, 9 ppm, would not be nearly enough to pose a threat.
BP’s solids are comprised primarily of chloride and sulfate salts. Critics frequently characterized these solids as “toxic” due to trace concentrations of heavy metals in the solids. Supporters of the project maintained that many of these heavy metals can be found in naturally-occurring sediment in similar concentrations and that BP’s discharge, which is over 99.9% water, is cleaner than well water in some parts of the country.
The oil giant has agreed to pursue a variety of research initiatives with third parties in order to further reduce the concentrations of ammonia and solids in its effluent. The company plans to provide Purdue University with a $5 million grant to help improve wastewater treatment, for example.
In announcing plans to move forward, Malone said that BP had faithfully fulfilled its federal and state obligations, but was willing to move a step beyond those requirements in order to safeguard a project that would increase domestic energy production.
“We have participated in an open and transparent permitting process with the State of Indiana and obtained a valid permit that meets all regulatory standards and is protective of water quality and human health,” he said. “Even so, ongoing regional opposition to any increase in discharge permit limits for Lake Michigan creates an unacceptable level of business risk for this $3.8 billion investment.”
August 15, 2007
“BP agrees to reconsider refinery dumping plans”
No real surprises. Same story, fourth verse. BP is horrible. Tiny particles of sludge. We’re all going to die. Blah-de-blah-de-blah. You can read reviews of previous reviews and apply them here. It’s the same “sludge”.
But let’s highlight one particular aspect of Hawthorne’s reporting here. He says that few supported the idea that BP could offset their discharge by paying for reductions in discharges from other plants. It is, on the one hand, nice to see that Hawthorne is capable of using a dimunitive adjective like “few”. He is aware of their existence, it seems. Perhaps, with practice he could use others, like “minimal”, or “trivial” or “insignificant” when talking about BP’s discharge. Just a thought.
That said, while Mikey goes into detail about How Bad BP Is, and How Their Awful Discharge Will Imperil Mankind, there is no – absolutely zip – reporting about those “few” who supported the offset plan. Who were they? What did they have to say? Is Rahm Emanuel the only person who has something to say about this project? We’ll never know. Did anyone speak up in support of the project as is? We’ll never know that either.
Through all the weeks, we’ve never heard one word about what supporters of the project have said, aside from the fact that BP is meeting permit limits and went through the regulatory process. There has been plenty of data in support of the project published, from the NW Indiana Times, the Governor’s office in Indiana and the Chicagoland Chamber. Yet, somehow, none of that data ever makes it into one of Hawthorne’s stories.
Kind of makes you wonder whether somebody has this guy in their pocket, doesn’t it?
“EPA will ask BP to offset pollution”
August 15, 2007
1. Hawthorne again calls solids “tiny sludge particles.” Again, we’re talking about 30 ppm of solids in what is over 99.99% water. If this is sludge, then you are drinking sludge every time you pour a glass of tap water.
1. This is not so much spin as it is stupid: Hawthorne tells us that the rock groups Pearl Jam and Wilco have joined the list of opponents to BP’s project. Really? Well alrighty then. If Pearl Jam and Wilco are opposing the project, then science be damned. I’m sold!
2. In what is truly a remarkable statement, Hawthorne says that BP has “paid Internet bloggers to defend the permit”. You mean I can get paid for defending reason? Man, where do I sign up?!
But seriously, is this statement anything close to credible? How could Hawthorne possibly know this (and he’s clearly stating it as a fact). Did BP admit to paying bloggers? Did repentant bloggers call Messr. Hawthorne to cleanse their souls? Or, is this Michael Hawthorne in defensive mode? He’s got to be taking some heat for his wildly biased and inaccurate articles. How better to dismiss his critics than to claim that those critics have been paid off. The alternative, that there are a lot of outraged people out there who understand what’s really going on and who know that he is full of BS, doesn’t seem to occur to him.
3. Hawthorne again cites the 1,584 pounds of ammonia per day and 4,925 pounds of solids per day that BP can discharge. He has yet to give us any perspective. He has yet to say that natural sources contribute far more ammonia and solids to lake water. He has yet to give us a relevant point of comparison, like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation Districts Calumet plant, which is permitted to discharge over 25,000 pounds per day of ammonia and 80,000 pounds of solids per day. He has yet to say that EPA identifies three steelmills in Northwest Indiana as the biggest dischargers in the area, responsible for over 90% of industrial discharges there. He has yet to say that ammonia is not a pollutant of concern in Lake Michigan and that solids are merely on the watch list.
Any of that data would put BP’s project in proper perspective, which is that this project is a peewee. But we have learned that we can’t expect any perspective from this reporter.
4. Hawthorne again refers to mixing zones as if they are something unique and somehow sinister. They aren’t. They represent good pollution control practice.
5. Hawthorne notes that Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has appointed a panel to review the state’s permitting process. (Which is more stringent than the Federal process, by the by). He does not tell you that the panel will also: “Evaluate the impact of BP’s proposed discharge on Lake Michigan’s quality and uses as a source of drinking water, recreation, and aquatic life.” Seems like kind of an important point, but perhaps our cub reporter is afraid of what those conclusions may be.
6. Hawthorne identifies BP as one of the companies that paid $56 million to settle an EPA complaint and to clean up the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal. He does not tell you that BP’s contribution to the pollution in the river and canal was relatively minor. Other sources were identified as the big hitters.
7. Finally, isn’t there something missing from the overall tone of this article? If EPA is suggesting that BP pay to control other sources of discharges into Lake Michigan, doesn’t that kind of tell you that BP is not the only source of wastewater discharges into the lake, and not all that significant of one? (As we have been saying all along). It’s not a pristine lake that BP will suddenly ruin. It’s a complex eco-system in which man and nature co-exist, and which has gotten a whole lot cleaner over the last 30 years. The reason for that clean up is the regulatory system that Hawthorne chooses to belittle. It’s a system that effectively manages thousands of sources of wastewater discharges, a point that somehow continues to elude this befuddled reporter.
“EPA cites coal plants”
August 7, 2007
There is an actual issue here but, typically, Hawthorne either doesn’t understand it or refuses to talk about it. Midwest Generation’s coal-fired plants are old. It was expected that they would be retired long ago. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to open new power plants today, particularly in urban areas like Chicago, to replace them.
So Midwest Generation (and Commonwealth Edison, who used to own these plants) have faced a continuing choice: do they keep these plants going and invest in pollution control upgrades, or can they use our capital to build new, more efficient and cleaner plants? They have hoped to invest in the latter, but the regulatory environment has pushed them toward the first solution.
Hawthorne’s piece does not say that Midwest Generation’s plants operate without control, but it certainly leaves the reader with that impression. In fact, all of the plants cited have controls. They are older controls, to be sure, but they are controls that remove over 99 percent of the “soot” Hawthorne cites. It’s not a question of whether Midwest Generation should control these plants, it’s a question of whether the company needs to upgrade its existing controls.
1. Hawthorne says that soot and other forms of pollution combine to create smog. This is incorrect. He later, and correctly, defines smog as “ground level ozone.” Ground level ozone is created by a mixture of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Soot–as particulate matter–does not enter into the equation.
2. Hawthorne says that plants that undergo major modifications are required to install pollution control devices under New Source Review. This is untrue. Plants that go through New Source Review must prove that they can meet specific, stringent emissions limits and that their controls meet the definition of Best Available Control Technology. It is not at all uncommon for a plant to meet those limits without installing new controls and for their existing controls to meet the “Best” definition. Adding or upgrading controls is simply an option.
1. Hawthorne calls Chicago air “dirty.” Really? Chicago air has gotten steadily cleaner for over 30 years. As it has cleaner, the EPA has tightened standards. The definition of “dirty,” therefore, has grown more and more stringent, as air quality continues to improve. Hawthorne either doesn’t understand this, or he chooses to ignore it.
It is as if your child went to a school where you need to average 90 percent to get an “A” grade. Your kid averages 91 percent, and receives the coveted grade. The next year, the school raises the “A” threshold to 93 percent. Your kid averages 92 percent, and dutifully gets a “B” grade. Did your child just get stupider?
2. Hawthorne says that Midwest Generation didn’t install controls required under the Clean Air Act. All of the Midwest Generation plants cited are controlled and meet permit limits. The implication that these plants are uncontrolled is incorrect. The only issue, as we discussed earlier, is whether the company should have upgraded those controls or not.
3. In discussing the cases that forced some power plants to upgrade their controls, Hawthorne says that these plants had been “upgraded, modified and expanded.” He does not tell you that those upgrades, modifications and expansions were permitted by regulatory authorities.
4. Hawthorne cites 7,600 pollution violations of Midwest Generation plants since 1999. Do these violations involve pollution, or do they involve paperwork? Do they represent instantaneous spikes in opacity, or are they continuing violations of air quality standards? We don’t know, because Hawthorne doesn’t tell us. If you look closely enough at any plant – not just a Midwest Generation plant – it’s easy to rack up a list of violations. Whether those “violations” actually resulted in environmental harm is quite another matter.
5. Hawthorne talks about “bursts of soot” from Midwest Generation plants. No one can say whether these plants emitted “busts of soot” or not. Midwest Generation, like all power plants, monitors the opacity of its stack gases. This is a way of seeing how clean the gas stream is. When opacity spikes, that does not necessarily relate to a “burst of soot.” It can also relate to temperature changes, monitor fluctuations or plain old dirty lenses on the monitor.
6. Hawthorne says that the air in Chicagoland was “so bad” on Aug. 1 that Chicagoland exceeded limits for both smog and soot. Technically true, but there are a number of spin problems here
a). As noted earlier, limits have grown more stringent, while the air has gotten cleaner.
b.) Midwest Generation’s emissions do not, as we have seen, significantly contribute to local levels of ground level ozone (or “smog”). The biggest contributors to ground level ozone in the Chicago area are power plants located in states to the west of us and the trucks and automobiles on our streets. Midwest Gen has almost no effect on local levels of ozone.
c.) When Hawthorne refers to soot, he is presumably referring to PM-2.5, or “fine particulate.” A little perspective is needed here.
Initially, back in the 70s, the EPA regulated total particulate. Industry, including power plants, dutifully installed controls and quickly met those limits. Our air got a lot cleaner.
Once those standards were met, EPA published PM-10 standards. PM-10 is particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter. (The average human hair is about 70 microns wide.) Again, we met those standards, with only a few, isolated, exceptions.
Now EPA is busy publishing standards to regulate particulate that is 2.5 microns in diameter or less. This is extremely tiny stuff. It’s so small that it’s not (for the most part) created directly. Certain chemicals combine in the atmosphere to make PM 2.5.
Since the air quality violation that Hawthorne cited occurred on August 1 and given the only recorded particulate violations on that date involved PM 2.5, one can only assume that he was talking about PM 2.5 when he talked about “soot.”
The spin violation here is that no contemplated control upgrade by Midwest Generation will result in a significant reduction of PM 2.5 concentrations in the Chicagoland area. Chicago has exceeded, and will continue to exceed, this new limit for a long time. The reasons have little to do with Midwest Generation.
7. Hawthorne says that the Bush administration has tried to rewrite the law to make it easier for utilities to upgrade their plants. Such a statement could have (and probably was) been written by the most extremist of environmental groups.
Hawthorne is talking about attempts to reform the New Source Review process. New Source Review is horrendously complicated. It is frequently cited as a prime example of the law of unintended consequences. Rather than go through New Source Review, many plant operators will keep aging, less environmentally efficient process limping along.
Attempts to streamline New Source Review were begun under the Clinton administration, a fact that Hawthorne ignores. The idea was not to make the process less stringent, but to eliminate the confusing, bureaucratic maze that the characterize the rule and the volume of guidance documents associated with it. New Source Review Reform did not become a “problem” until the Bush administration inherited the streamlining process that was begun under the Clinton administration.
Moreover, more stringent rules often trump New Source Review. Sulfur dioxide emissions in Illinois have declined from over a millions tons per year in 2000 to less than 500,000 tons per year last year. This is a result of strict application of the Acid Rain rule, which controls sulfur dioxide emissions on a nationwide basis. New Source Review did not come into play in any significant way.
The fact that Hawthorne parrots the positions of the most extreme environmental groups in this case, and with virtually every case, is further proof that any story published under his by-line is not to be trusted.
“EPA backs BP dumping”
August 1, 2007
1. Hawthorne says that BP is the first company in years to be allowed to increase the amount of toxic chemicals pumped into the Great Lakes. This is incorrect. No legitimate scientist would call BP’s wastewater discharge “toxic.” It’s 99.996 percent water and is, in fact, cleaner than many sources of well water.
2. Hawthorne complains that the Clean Water Act prohibits declines in water quality, even when limits on pollution discharges, are met. This is a subtle mischaractization of the law. “No-backsliding” means that limits can not be raised and that water quality goals can not be relaxed. The act is flexible enough to allow for changes that are inherent to a free market system. That is apparent from the fact that other wastewater sources have asked for, and received, permits to increase, their discharges. While BP’s permit is not tied to an increase in productivity directly (it is rather tied to a change in feedstock) it will not result in backsliding. The lake will continue to get cleaner, whether or not BP’s project moves forward.
3. Hawthorne refers to Dick Durbin as a “lawmaker.” Dick Durbin is not a “lawmaker,” Dick Durbin is an “idiot.”
OK, I’m a jerk.
4. This one’s not Hawthorne, but we can hang it on U.S. Representative Mark Kirk. Kirk is quoted as saying “Years of accelerated pollution from BP will create another problem in the future.”
Horse-puckey. Let’s assume that the two pollutants that Kirk is worried about (ammonia and solids) kept accumulating in the lake. This doesn’t actually happen. Ammonia evaporates and solids drop off the bottom, but let’s assume that was not the case. It would take 6,000 years before BP’s contribution to either was detectable in lake by conventional laboratory methods.
Furthermore, neither pollutant is of much concern (as we have seen) and, in any case, BP’s contributions are background noise compared to natural and other man-made sources.
1. Hawthorne implies that the EPA isn’t doing its job. He complains that the agency has been trying to eliminate pollution in the Great Lakes for 30 years, but still granted BP this abominable permit.
Pollution in the Great Lakes has been dramatically reduced, though Hawthorne fails to mention it. BP’s project is so small, in the scheme of things, that it will have no effect. This permit is part of an overall program that has been effective and will continue to be effective.
2. Again, Hawthorn leans on the 54 percent increase in ammonia emissions and the 35 percent increase in solids emissions. His selective use of data fails to tell the reader that the refinery’s discharge is primarily (99.996 percent) water, that it is insignificant when compared to background and that we’re talking about concentrations in the parts per million.
3. Hawthorne calls solids “tiny sludge particles.” The only sludge involved with BP is Hawthorne’s articles. He’s backing off his previous claim, that BP is discharging “sludge.” (How do his editors let him get away with this?) It ain’t sludge, it ain’t “tiny sludge particles” and it ain’t toxic. It’s an incidental amount of solids.
No rational, unbiased person, would call 30 ppm of solids, which is primarily comprised of chlorides and sulfates that also occur naturally, “sludge.” Doing so is nothing but hysterical propaganda.
July 15 Chicago Tribune
“BP gets break on dumping in lake”
1. Hawthorne claims BP will dump “industrial sludge” into Lake Michigan. BP’s wastewater discharge will consist of 99.996 percent water, with a small amount (30 ppm) of solids. These solids are primarily salts. This discharge does not qualify as “sludge” by any reasonable definition of the term.
2. Hawthorne says that BP will dump more “toxic waste” into Lake Michigan. BP’s discharge is not “toxic” by any reasonable standard.
3. Hawthorne says that the use of a mixing zone runs “counter to a provision of the Clean Water Act that prohibits any downgrade in water quality near a pollution source.” This is not true. Mixing zones are commonly used in order to ensure that wastewater discharges meet water quality limits.
A familiar example of a mixing zone is a chimney. If a residential fireplace were allowed to discharge its emissions at ground level, neighbors could be overwhelmed by smoke. This does not imply that the amount of smoke is troubling, in terms of overall environmental effect. A chimney is tacit recognition of the fact that even a small amount of pollution can have a significant impact on a close neighbor. So fireplaces have chimneys, which allow air pollutants to mix in the air before they can cause a problem.
It’s the same way with wastewater. A mixing zone ensures that relatively small discharges like BP’s don’t have an unintended local effect–exactly like a fireplace chimney.
1. Hawthorne claims that BP’s increase in ammonia and solids discharge are “significant.” Solids discharged will increase from 22 parts per million (ppm) to 30 ppm. Ammonia discharges will increase from 6.2 ppm to 9.5 ppm.
Compared to existing industrial, agricultural and natural contributions of these compounds to the lake, those discharges are not even close to significant. Ammonia does not even rate as a pollutant of concern among the hundreds of pollutants that EPA monitors in the lake. Solids are on EPA’s watch list (the lowest tier in EPA’s hierarchy of concern), but BP’s discharge contains far less solids than typical drinking water.
2. Hawthorne says that ammonia can produce algae blooms that can kill fish. Technically true. But Hawthorne does not point out that 9.5 ppm of ammonia (as BP proposes to discharge) isn’t even close to the concentration needed to create an algae bloom.
3. Hawthorne says that sludge is full of concentrated heavy metals. Sludge can be (but isn’t always) full of heavy metals. Nonetheless, 30 ppm of solids hardly qualifies as “sludge,” as we have seen. In addition, BP’s solids are mostly chloride and sulfate solids, neither of which is a heavy metal or toxic, by anyone’s standards.
4. Hawthorne says that processing Canadian crude could require more energy and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, it could. It could also result in a decrease in greenhouse gases, by saving the energy used to power supertankers, push foreign oil through pipelines or by keeping refining capacity out of less efficient foreign refineries. “Could increase greenhouse gases” is a statement that “could” apply to changing the type of food that your flatulent dog consumes.
5. Hawthorne refers to a steady flow of “oil, grease and chemicals” into Lake Michigan. “Steady flow” implies that such discharges have continued, unchecked. EPA data says otherwise. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 70s, water quality in Lake Michigan has improved remarkably and given rise to multi-billion dollar fisheries industry.