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Chicago Sun Times: BP: ‘Beyond petroleum’ or ‘big polluter’?

August 1, 2007

Like a pious preacher caught with the secretary in a cheap motel, the oil company that spent years promising to take us “beyond petroleum” has suddenly found itself at the center of a growing storm brought on by a severe case of hypocrisy.

Instead of a public atonement, BP is digging in its heels. Odds are that this is a losing game, one that will leave both corporate and political reputations battered and broken.

BP has spent millions promoting itself as the greenest oil giant. But soon, the company plans to start dumping 1,600 pounds of ammonia and nearly 2½ tons of contaminated sludge each and every day into Lake Michigan from its refinery in Whiting, Ind., a mile from where 11 cities get their drinking water.

BP says its discharge is 99.9 percent water. But this merely dilutes the truth about what all those total tons of pollution will do to our lake. Ammonia is toxic to fish, frogs and other amphibians, and it can cause oxygen-gobbling algae blooms that smother aquatic life. Toxic metals in the sludge — which likely include mercury — will accumulate in the tissues of fish and anything (or anyone) eating them.

The company, which posted more than $6 billion in profits last quarter alone, could easily eliminate the hazardous discharges. But BP told Indiana regulators that it didn’t have space to install the treatment equipment. And nobody from the state, it seems, wants to press them for an alternative solution.

BP escaped its legal obligations through a loophole that specifically allows officials and the company to ignore harmful effects of the contaminated effluent simply by asserting that the dumping is ”necessary to accommodate important social and economic interests.” The public never got a chance to ask whether 80 jobs promised by the company — in a state labor market of nearly 3 million — are worth the price of a polluted lake.

Many argue that such lax rules amount to a violation of federal laws intended to prevent degradation of water quality in the Great Lakes. Long-stalled efforts to tighten up this process are restarting slowly in Indiana, but any fix won’t apply retroactively.

From the Great Lakes all the way to Washington, policymakers and the pubic are up in arms about Indiana’s regulatory largess.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 327-26 to pass a bipartisan resolution led by Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel and Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers condemning the Indiana permit. Mayors in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan are up in arms. Gov. Blagojevich is considering legal action. And Sen. Richard Durbin and others say lawmakers may go after BP’s air pollution permits if all else fails.

Despite the swelling avalanche of protest, neither BP nor the state of Indiana seems to be getting the message. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — a former top official in the Bush administration — has ramped up his support for the company plan. A BP spokesman says the company doesn’t feel obligated to present alternatives when it meets with Congress in September.

It is precisely this kind of hubris in the face of public opinion that destroys corporate reputations and undoes political careers.

Sacrificing Lake Michigan in the name of oil addiction makes no sense. Giving oil companies a free pass to ignore basic clean water safeguards won’t lower gas prices, but it will foul an irreplaceable natural resource on which millions of Midwesterners depend.

Ann Alexander is a senior attorney in the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.,CST-EDT-guest01.article

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