The Barbershop has re-located

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Then again, perhaps BP's refinery plans aren't so bad

A report suggests the company's upgrades will be up to code and won't ruin Lake Michigan

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Sometimes important news eludes us because it all sounds so technical. Take the fight over BP's plans to allegedly pollute Lake Michigan. The news that we missed from an independent analysis is that the company's plan for a $3.6 billion upgrade of its northwest Indiana refinery will not muck up the lake, as the plan's critics assert and as the public has been led to believe.

Perhaps the analysis was missed, at least in Illinois, because the 33-page report, released Dec. 6, was requested by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and done by A. James Barnes, professor of public and environmental affairs and adjunct law professor at Indiana University. Undoubtedly, this means it will be attacked as biased, unreliable, unscientific and blah, blah because Indiana -- which benefits economically from the expansion -- had a hand in it. Never mind that such a claim impugns the reputation of a respected scientist and fails to meet any test of substantive argumentation.

Anyway, to oversimplify the professor's conclusions, he found that the expansion plans complied with state and federal permitting requirements and that the discharges will not violate Lake Michigan water-quality standards. "The question of the extent to which any increase in TSS [total suspended solids] or ammonia should be allowed is a fair one and at the heart of this controversy," Barnes wrote. "However, the concentration of TSS permitted per liter of water (the equivalent of 10 grains of sand suspended in a pint of pure water) illustrates how far the description of it in several newspaper reports as sludge is from reality. In fact, industrial sludge -- such as the material that accumulates at the bottom of wastewater treatment tanks -- cannot legally be dumped into Lake Michigan or disposed of in a manner where it will reach Lake Michigan.

"Similarly, the permitted ammonia concentration is the equivalent of one eyedropper drop of household ammonia solution in a pint of water. Thus, some public perceptions/reactions were not based on an accurate understanding of the true facts." If the discharges are controlled as planned, he said, they "would not be expected to cause a violation of water quality standards or interfere with designated uses in Lake Michigan (including full body contact recreation such as swimming), and maintaining the aquatic community and drinking water supply." In fact, the limitations placed on the discharge "are demanding, and in several instances, much more restrictive than, those issued by adjoining states to refineries."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed, he said, that Indiana's regulations aimed at preventing "degradation" of lake waters conforms with the federal Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative Anti-degradation Policy -- a kind of clean-water gold standard. In fact, he said, "Indiana is more protective of the lake than the adjoining states."

Still, the controversy has illuminated a problem created by some vagueness in Indiana's rules, he said. That lack of clarity created uncertainty about what information BP had to submit to win approval, and that, in turn, led to an incomplete public record justifying the approval. And that, in turn, led to the public perception that the process was opaque. Barnes recommended that Indiana make a number of improvements (beyond the usual practice of burying legal notices in newspapers) to make the process more transparent. Among his other recommendations, Barnes urged the U.S. EPA to update its petroleum refining regulations, now some 20 years old, to reflect new and enhanced techniques for treating wastewater. That is particularly important, he said, because a number of refineries, like BP's, are planning to switch from the light, sweet crude to the heavier Canadian crude whose refining creates increased pollutants.

But even if the permits were entirely legal and appropriate, that still leaves the issue that defines the opposition: There should be no degradation of the lake waters, no matter how slight or inconsequential. Barnes discusses how degradation means different things to regulators, the regulated and the public and how that adds to the confusion surrounding the permitting process, but that still leaves unanswered whether the prohibition of even the slightest degradation is good public policy. Good public policy, in my view, is: no degradation unless the benefits outweigh its costs. So, we're back to the original question: Do the tiny, if nonexistent, environmental costs of the expansion outweigh the benefits of this $3.6 billion construction project in our midst that will reduce our dependence on crude oil from unfriendly sources? You don't need an expert to give you that answer; common sense provides it.

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