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BP In The Gulf, BP On Lake Michigan

By JoshMogerman in News on May 22, 2010 9:00PM

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As the oil disaster in the Gulf continues unabated and law suits start to stack up, BP has taken a beating in the media for the impact its corporate culture has had on safety throughout their operations. In Chicagoland, that is prompting many to cast a wary eye south along the shore of Lake Michigan to Whiting, IN where BP is in the midst of a massive and controversial refinery expansion.

In light of a damning 60 Minutes report and evaluations of OSHA data showing the energy giant is responsible for more serious safety violations at its refineries than all their competitors, local media has begun to look at the project, which is a year away from completion, in a new light.

Chicago Public Radio talked to voices on both sides, with NRDC’s Ann Alexander, who has been fighting air pollution permits for the project, comparing the Whiting project with the mess in the Gulf:

What we do know in both cases is that BP very sharply and steeply cut corners. They cut corners on the environment and safety in order to enhance the speed of their projects and the profit that they expected to make.

BP’s Brad Etlin noted:

We’re going to get to the bottom of what happened in the Gulf. You know, here, we’re continued focused on the safe operation of the refinery. Again, safety is number one. We’re going to ensure anything that we do here is safe or we’re going to stop that work and that is our primary goal.

While the Whiting refinery, which is visible from Chicago’s lakeshore on a clear day, has not had major disasters, they have not been without problems in recent years. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited the refinery for violating federal air standards by releasing the cancer-causing toxin benzene into the air from 2003 to 2008, which at times reached 16 times the acceptable limit. And a leak of the flammable refining gas naptha in 2008 alarmed nearby residents.

The expansion project has been a lightning rod of controversy.

Plans for added water pollution in Lake Michigan ignited a massive uproar in 2007 with nearly the entire Illinois Congressional delegation calling out for tighter regulation. BP publicly stated that they would attempt to avoid the additional water emissions that their permit afforded the facility, though no legally binding agreement can enforce this. The air pollution permits continue to be tied up with USEPA stepping in last year and forcing the State of Indiana and BP to address concerns from community and environmental groups.

Even the oil being refined is controversial. BP Whiting is already the largest refiner of bitumen (also called “tar sands” or “oil sands”) from Canada, which is blamed for massive deforestation and water pollution in Alberta where it is mined from open pits or steamed out of the ground. That energy intensive extraction represents a significant increase in global warming emissions over standard petroleum products. There are also concerns about the local impacts of elevated amounts of sulfur and heavy metals in tar sands.

Unlike the refinery, which was originally built in 1889 by Standard Oil, local concerns over BP’s safety record are unlikely to go away soon.