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Monday, July 23, 2007

Politicians mucking up arguments

As Indiana approves the expansion of a BP refinery, Illinois officials muddy real issues

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

The cynic might say that Mayor Richard M. Daley is making a stink about increased Lake Michigan pollution from a planned expansion of a BP refinery because he wants to avert attention from allegations that an old friend of his had mob connections.

Daley is going full tilt in his fight against Indiana and Washington approvals of the $3.8 billion upgrading of BP's Whiting, Ind., refinery because it supposedly will degrade the lake with more "sludge" and ammonia. His outrage has flowed. "That is our drinking water. That is our economic development. That is our recreation," Daley exclaimed with such passion that it might have left the impression that we're going to find viscous, black muck oozing from our faucets. Not missing the hint, the Park District (read: the taxpayers) is organizing a petition drive to flood the Indiana governor with "thousands" of signatures.

Happily for Daley, this cross-border assault on us by Indiana came just as a key witness in the Family Secrets mob trial was talking about how a Daley pal -- Fred Barbara -- helped bomb a suburban restaurant in the early 1980s. Daley wasn't as forthcoming with reporters about that, so the cynics might be right about the BP expansion being a handy diversion.

Not being a cynic, I think that the explanation is simpler: opportunity. Opportunistic politicians -- such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who can be counted on to demagogue anything handy, and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), desperate to appease his increasingly liberal North Shore constituency -- are making similar stinks. Opportunity, as in a chance to ride the wave of ill-informed and knee-jerk criticism that is pounding the shore.

I'm as devoted to maintaining the cleanliness of the Great Lake as the next guy who never goes in the water because it's always too cold, or because the suburbs near my home charge "non-residents" outrageous prices just to sit on the beach.

But the level of discourse about this project has been anything but rational or informed. Consider the critics' reference to the sludge that supposedly is going to crud up the lake. The description conjures up 19th Century images of thick, viscous blobs of muck percolating from a filthy concrete culvert into the lake.

Just for the record -- and everyone is allowed to argue with it -- here is the company's response to the assertion that it will be pouring sludge into the lake, an explanation I don't see much mentioned by the critics: There is no sludge in the discharges.

Sludge refers to the concentrated larger solids that are removed by treatment from the wastewater before any discharge into the lake. Sludge is disposed of as a solid waste; it never reaches the lake. Tiny dispersed solids, too small to be caught by the treatment's fine filters, do reach the lake; they are about 10 microns in size (1/25,000 of an inch.) The 20 million gallons of treated wastewater discharged daily into the lake is 99.999 percent water; the remaining 0.001 percent is mostly two kinds of salt -- chloride and sulfate -- and even tinier amounts of nutrients, organics and metals, most of which are found naturally in Lake Michigan.

The critics like to say, as a matter of shorthand, that BP wants to "dump" 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more "sludge" into the lake every day. But citing percentages alone is misleading without reporting the huge raw number upon which the percentages are based. In fact, a 35 percent increase in maximum daily particulates translates into an increase of less than a dozen parts per million. The actual increase would be more on the order of 8 parts per million. Same infinitesimal increases apply to ammonia.

BP notes that if the wastewater were toxic under the definitions and regulations of the 1977 Clean Water Act, no discharge would be allowed. Simply stated, according to the company, the current or planned discharge is not toxic; it is not harmful to humans or aquatic life. If you don't believe that, then argue with the legal limits.

These kinds of technical and legal arguments deserve airing, as the critics demand. Certainly, you can argue with the facts and the company's interpretations of them but that would be a vast improvement over the current level of hysterical discourse. This is a monumentally complicated technical issue, one that is too easily simplified. That's understandable, because we all yearn to have the world explained in simple, comprehensible terms. Passion in arguing the issue is OK. But that doesn't excuse the politicians and BP's


David Mueller said...

Mr. Byrne - check your facts before you write. BP's web site indicates that the sludge is 99.9% water, not 99.999%! That leaves 2,000 gals of pure waste dumped per day or 730,000/year. And lots of stuff get by a 10 micron filter, including bacteria (need 0.22 micron filter) and anything in solution, such as mercury or ammonia. Of course ammonia is toxic, they simply mix it with fresh water in Mixing Zones to it below the toxic level. In a time of record profits for the oil companies, it is unconscious able that BP wants to increase its dumping into Lake Michigan - and wait - also increase air pollutants!

Mary Anne Brown said...


Do not try to cloud the basic intent of BP to increase pollution in Lake Michigan. You present the increase as minimal, but the effects of many chemicals are caused by such trace amounts. I would recommend a review of your high school chemistry course before your next drink of water.


Mary Anne Brown, RN

Rick Day said...

Dennis, Thank you for putting the BP problem in plain English. It is still an increase when we should be decreasing pollutants. BP has the money to further clean the water and transport the solid waste away from Lake Michigan. They should just do it.
Rick Day

Ralph Bishop said...

The thing that fascinates me about BP ("Beyond Petroleum") is that here we have of a company spending tens of millions of advertising dollars to position itself as an environmentally sensitive and responsible energy producer at the same time it is unabashedly manipulating regulators into letting it increase pollution. An increase is an increase, however small, and small increases are not necessarily trivial. Shame on BP and shame on the state of Indiana.

jay sirwick said...

Gosh, do you think that refining oil is what a refinery might actual be used for?
I only hope that they can keep the place from having as many curiously timed outages as they've had.

Anonymous said...

Fish emmit ammonia. As it turns out the fish restocking that is done in Lake Michigan reuslts in more ammonia release than BP's refinery.

Also, there have been many beach closings due to public sewage treatment plans (chicago a primary offender) that dump raw sewage into the lake periodically. BP hasn't shut down a beach, yet the government run public works facilities have. Spend your time focusing on the real problem areas!

Anonymous said...

I'm not up on my fish nitrogen metabolism, but I know that fish provide an essential part of the lake ecosystem - this cannot be said for sludge or chemical dumping. The reason for the current response to BP's is that we have just learned of the request - not because it is the greatest concern of the lake.

Anonymous said...

If Illinois was really concerned about the quality of the lake water, they would have spent the money to clean up Meigs Field instead of just covering it up with dirt. Soil test by the City of Chicago's own consultants show that there are known toxins in the soil that exceed EPA acceptable standards.

danc said...

Yo Dennis- Sounds like someone could have some stocks of BP stashed in the ol' safe deposit box. Wake up man, polutants are not a good thing, especially when it contaminates an esstential of life. Do you have children and/or grandchildren that need to drink, bath, and play in one of the greatest natural resources in the USA, the Great Lakes, namely Lake Michigan.
Yo Dennis, there are two 55 gallon drums filled with nice fresh Lake Michigan water, one has 35% more ammonia and the same increase of sludge, or on your twisted logic, 8 parts per million. Which one would you prefer to drink from, and pour a glass for your offspring?
It is time to decrease pollutants of all kinds in water, earth, air: NOT TO INCREASE!!

Anonymous said...

Ok people, lets get off the environmentalist bandwagon. You all are sheep. Just because Hollywood celebrities and other slightly educated fools say that oil companies are bad you assume they are correct. Are they scientists? I sure hope that a private jet traveling celebrity is not your reason to go anti-oil because they haven’t. While oil companies are not 100% clean they are not so greedy as to pollute the largest body of fresh water in the world for profit. The politicians are using BP as a chance for them to bash a non-American company and show that they can work together to the public. However, they seem to think that putting almost 5000 UNION JOBS out of work here and more out of work in South Carolina, Louisiana and Houston is worth their own little vendetta against BP for when Amoco pulled out of Chicago before. So I ask all of you critics these few questions, prove me wrong and perhaps then you can bad mouth BP.
1) Where is this “sludge” I am hearing about in the news? It seems as if BP were dumping a mud like substance into the lake but if this were the case why is it not on the news. It is not because they are dumping suspended solid. This is the basic equivalent of what you have been drinking out of the tap for most of your life.
2) If BP left then we would be worst off since we would be left with an over 100 year old refinery with no one to rebuild and maintain it. How could this be better than kicking BP out?
3) Canada is depending on this project to remove their crude oil. In fact they have already begun the pipeline. This is quite a major investment for them and I don’t think they are going to let some want to be spotlight grabbing unskilled politicians who are trying to get onto the political map stop this by taking a stand against big oil because there is more at stake here than a politician’s aspirations.
4) The only reason BP is being hit instead of Shell or Exxon is because it is a British company. I don’t think this would help US / UK relations when BP is kicked out for not definite reason.
5) If common sense prevails then President Bush will eventually step in and veto congress’s decisions. The EPA reports directly to him and if anyone of you sponges had read what they stated you would know that BP has done exactly as what has been allowed by their GOVERNMENT ISSUED PERMIT. Yeah, a nationally regulated permit. Surprising how the Illinois government is so quick to attack something that they passed along with every other state.
Finally, if you feel that this permit is still not enough then perhaps you should go about this the right way and petition for a new permit with new regulations. If this were done then oil companies and everyone else would have to follow new guidelines. By only doing this to BP then you are leaving the door open for someone else to come in and do the same thing BP was doing since it is technically approved by the government. I leave you with this one thought. How can you be so short sighted to side with politicians from the city known as the Windy City so quickly, a city know for airhead politicians, and turn your backs so quickly on a company that has been with this community for so long under the name of Amoco for those of you misguided fools. I openly accept any rebuttals you may have, especially if you can show me some of this sludge.

Bitter Scribe said...

"Nutrients and organics," huh? You make it sound like BP should be bottling the stuff and selling it in health food stores. Tell you what, pal--let them dump it in your back yard.