One of the best parts about those long Midwestern winters is that once they’re over, you can enjoy spending the summer at the beach. But how safe is your local beach?
Unfortunately if you live in a city along Lake Michigan, you have to worry about exposure to pollution. Pollution in the Great Lakes has been a problem for decades, but in the 1980s residents started taking action to clean up Lake Michigan. The lake was becoming a safer place to swim.
The cleanup was threatened, however, in 2007 when Indiana exempted British Petroleum Co. from state environmental laws. Indiana officials made this decision so BP could go ahead with a $3.8 billion expansion that would allow the company to refine heavier Canadian crude oil. The expansion was intended to create 80 new jobs, according to officials with BP.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency reported that BP has been violating the Clean Air Act since 2003 (which BP resolved in a court settlement in January 2009).
The new permit allowed BP to release 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more sludge into Lake Michigan each day. Ammonia causes algae to grow, which kills fish; the sludge released is full of concentrated heavy metals. The permit also allowed BP to dump mercury.
Officials in Illinois and Chicago were not aware that the permit had been modified.
Despite the fact that the refinery is on the Illinois border and is often thought to be part of the Chicago area, city and state officials were left out of the decision to modify the permit. They learned about the change after an article in the Chicago Tribune in July 2007.
The new water permit in Indiana was a huge setback for many communities in Illinois. Weeks before the article ran in the Tribune, Mayor Richard Hyde of Waukegan announced a $36 million plan to clean up Waukegan Harbor. Hyde was one of the most outspoken opponents to the amended permit for BP.
Other officials spoke out as well. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, whose district includes Waukegan, pushed for federal legislation that would block BP’s plans to add new pollution to the lake. Then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois was a huge critic of BP. In a 2007 article in the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel said: "With one permit, this company and this state are undoing years of work to keep pollution out of our Great Lakes. Nothing surprises me at this point about what Indiana is allowing them to do."
He also co-sponsored a resolution approved by the House in July 2007 condemning BP’s plans.
A BP official said that the company was doing nothing wrong and insisted that BP is not adding extra pollution to the lake. In an interview with National Public Radio in 2007, a manager at the BP plant in Indiana said the company is taking lake water that is already polluted, cleaning it up and returning it to the lake.
BP released a series of advertisements in an attempt to sway public opinion in Illinois, but the ads backfired. Eventually the EPA became involved. The agency said there was nothing that could be done because Indiana had given BP permission to pollute Lake Michigan.
On Aug. 23, 2007, BP gave in to demands and reversed its plans to increase emissions.