Pollutants and Petcoke: Environmental struggles and the Great Lakes

5 Feb 2014 james

whitingWhiting, Indiana

I begin to walk back, away from Lake Michigan, along 129th Street – following the route of the cab that brought me here. Only then does the scale of this place truly dawn on me. It is vast. The largest oil refinery in the Mid West stretches in all directions, line upon line of oil tanks, avenues of high security fencing, and flare stacks visible into the far distance. There are rows of squat white cylinders containing great lakes of crude oil, each one demarcated on its forty foot steel walls with a black set of numbers, a line of four figures a yard or two high.

It is drizzling and, as it is a Sunday morning, there’s not a great deal of traffic. A pick-up truck passes every two or three minutes, the driver’s neck craning to catch a glimpse of the figure walking through this industrial zone. Any moment now one of them is going to stop. I can imagine the script: “Don’t you know this a high-security zone? You are from where? You are doing what?” Along the road, attached to the chain-link fencing are regular signs that say ‘BP No Trespassing’ and ‘This is a US Coast Guard MARSEC area’. There’s the strongest sense of this place being off limits. Here it is, the energy system, the guts of the Mid West, and it is beyond the physical, cultural and legal world of the vast majority of society.

On and on down Calumet Avenue. Crossing the border from the City of Whiting into the City of Hammond, and the tanks continue, each one bearing its number: 3635, 3637, 3639, 3641 … The air is occasionally filled with the reek of crude. The gutters have a sheen of petrol. The ditch by the roadside has a surface of thick green algae punctuated by the multi-coloured bloom of plastic trash. Somehow we need to possess places such as these, possess them in our imaginations so that we might address their fate.

These flat lands at the edge of the southern tip of Lake Michigan were once dunes and marsh drained by the Calumet River meandering towards the lake. Which of the First Nations lived off this soil for the better part of 10,000 years? Perhaps the Miami. Which European settlers farmed it for a century or more? Perhaps they were German. In 1889 John D Rockefeller established a Standard Oil Company plant here to refine Pennsylvanian crude into kerosene for lamps. Replacing whale oil as fuel for lights in the cities and the homesteads was the key market for oil products before the combustion engine. It wasn’t until 1891 that the first gasoline-powered automobile in America was built in Ohio City, 300 miles east on the shores of Lake Erie.

Rockefeller, like other industrialists at the time, was not just founding a refinery, but starting a new town in which the company effectively controlled everything, echoing the model of Jamestown the first English colony established by the Virginia Company of London in 1607. Today, the mammoth Whiting industrial complex covers an area of several square miles. I had come looking for the refinery within the City of Whiting. Eventually I realised that the refinery is the City of Whiting. It stretches across almost the entire metropolitan area, and on into the next door cities of Hammond and East Chicago. Standard Oil eventually evolved into Amoco, which in 1999 was merged with BP. The plant is now ultimately controlled from the latter’s headquarters in London.

In the heart of Downtown Chicago, on the 16th floor of 20 North Wacker Drive – the skyscraper that contains the Opera House – I meet with Meleah Geertsma, Ann Alexander and Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC is one of the largest environmental non-profits in the USA and a determined utiliser of the law in defence of the environment. Appropriately Ann and Meleah are both attorneys. They explain the events around the Whiting Refinery over the past five years.

John Manzoni
John Manzoni

In 2007 BP announced a new expansion of the plant, following a decision made by John Manzoni, the company’s then-Chief Executive of Refining and Marketing based in Piccadilly. Whiting would be refitted to be able to process more crude extracted from the Albertan tar sands. It had already been refining some of this substance for several years. The refit project was costed at $3.8 billion, and trumpeted as ‘the largest private-sector investment in Indiana’s history’. Processing tar sands crude leads to significantly higher levels of waste than the more conventional crudes that Whiting had refined for over a century. BP insisted that it would be necessary for them release more pollutants into Lake Michigan and so they applied for water permits that would allow them to emit up to a new specified level. The state authority, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, obligingly approved a licence enabling BP to dump 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more suspended solids into the lake, while exempting them from following all the provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act.

Unlike the City of Chicago, Whiting is not in Illinois, but lies just over the state line in Indiana. However, like the other industrial plants on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, it can be seen from the Downtown skyscrapers. They seem like a distant part of the metropolis, and the Lake feels as though it belongs to the citizens of Chicago. It is possessed by their imaginations. Consequently the main paper of the city, The Chicago Tribune, has long taken an intense interest in the Whiting plant. They published a series of  exposés, revealing the extent of pollution in the Lake that would result from the proposed refinery expansion and the degree to which the authorities of Indiana were soft peddling on the implementation of Federal anti-pollution laws.

There was outrage in Chicago. It was the conversation amongst the politicians. The attorneys of NRDC became deeply involved. Gas stations were picketed and in August 2007 The Tribune encouraged its readers to boycott BP:

At this point, the only clear message BP is sending is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too. BP executives want their company to be known as the greenest – as suggested by its logo, meant to resemble a sunflower and show its commitment to the environment. But they also want to dump in our lakes. They can’t have it both ways…That’s why we have to help them decide which road they’ll choose by hitting their pocketbooks.

Eventually after a five-year fight led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the NRDC and a coalition of other citizens groups, the company backed down on airborne emissions and in May 2012 agreed to abide by new levels and install $400 million of pollution control equipment. The BP head of Refining & Marketing, Iain Conn, had to accept that the company would have to invest more capital than had been agreed by his predecessor Manzoni. There seems little doubt that these and other victories over the company, owed much to the persistence of bodies such as the NRDC, and long struggle by the EPA to enforce refinery limits. The changed political climate that arrived with the Obama administration may have aided the cases and the changed attitude to BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster may have weakened the company’s hand.

US limits to the amount of substances such as toxins that may be present in a body of water like Lake Michigan, are set at a State level although they should be below the limits set by Federal authorities and they are overseen by the EPA. The issuing of permits lies with State level agencies. For example, throughout the past decade BP has been allowed by the Indiana authorities to emit mercury into the lake at 17 times above the federal limit. Now, as a result of the new public, political and legal pressure, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has tightened the permits on the amount of mercury that Whiting can emit. Ann Alexander, speaking in September 2013 to The Tribune on behalf of the NRDC, praised regulators for making “modest but significant changes” to the proposed permits. At least now the new limit was only six times above the Federal line. This story is a perfect illustration of the way in which the company can apply pressure at the State level. But also how people can fight back using the law.

A Chicago community meeting the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) hosted to discuss a proposed construction permit for KCBX Terminals in Nov 2013
A Chicago community meeting the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) hosted to discuss a proposed construction permit for KCBX Terminals in Nov 2013

However, regardless of the improvements to the plant forced upon the company, Whiting is now entrenched as part of the tar sands system, similar to the Keystone XL pipeline, Line 9, and other export routes. This refinery, together with a sister plant at Toledo on the shores of Lake Erie, part-owned by BP, ensures that the company is one of the world’s largest refiners of tar sands products. And it ties the labour, communities and economies of northern Indiana and southern Chicago into this most carbon-intensive infrastructure for decades to come.

The train pulls away from downtown Chicago, heading across the Calumet River towards Hammond-Whiting and Michigan City. Beyond Lake Shore Drive are pristine white triangles of sails against the green expanse of the Lake, flecked with white horses in the gentle breeze. The scale of the Great Lakes is mesmerising. They contain over a fifth of the surface freshwater on the earth. From Michigan the waters flow through Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, down the St Lawrence River and out into the western North Atlantic. When the river’s current joins the cold waters from the Arctic and mixes with the Gulf Stream, it shrouds the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Grand Banks with fog.

Three weeks earlier, a great humpback had risen from under us. Blew out a spume of water and then sank down into the Prussian Blue ocean. “A whale! A whale! Unmistakably a whale! Just there! She or he must have passed right under the ship!” Paul, my fellow passenger on the Independent Endeavour, had heard my shout and hurried across the bridge, onto the deck that sticks out from the side of the ship, 90 feet above the waves. The back rose again, a little further off now, following a dead straight line directly at a right angle to the ship’s course.

We were crossing the Atlantic from England in a container ship and for the better part of five days the weather had been against us. Fog, strong winds, a night of an intense storm and then fog again. Suddenly it began to calm, the sky cleared, the sun was hot. We were eager to spend hours just staring at the blue, blue ocean. The joy of being outside after sitting cooped up in our cabins. The strong breeze, air so rich and fresh. Water, only water for 360 degrees, visible for perhaps 20 miles in any direction. We scanned the horizon with the captain’s binoculars, heavy but pelucidly clear. And then the whales! Humpbacks in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The leviathans in their summer feeding grounds, in waters partly formed by the flow from the Great Lakes.

By the late 1960’s Lake Erie was popularly understood to be ‘dead’. The shallowest, warmest and most biodiverse of the Great Lakes had been so badly polluted, especially with sewage, petro-chemicals and phosphates, that the blooms of green algae on its surface had become legendary. In part inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, which revealed the toxic nature of DDT, there was a growing public concern about pollution.

On 29th January 1969 a massive blow-out took place on an oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The resultant slick spread 100,000 barrels of crude across the ocean and onto the beaches throughout the next month. The public outcry and media storm catalysed the American environmental movement. It was the opening weeks of the Presidency of Richard Nixon, and the new administration responded with surprising speed. By January 1970 the National Environmental Policy Act had been passed. By December 1970 the EPA was up and running and amendments to the Clean Air Act had greatly strengthened its powers. After a substantial political battle the Clean Water Act was passed by Nixon in October 1972, and the same year the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed between the USA and Canada.

Under the Presidency of Jimmy Carter the structures of the law and the institutions that enforced it, began to effectively push back against the environmental destruction of the previous half-century. The EPA established its Great Lakes National Program. In 1977 the Agency brought the USS Crocket, a retired gun boat that had fought in the Vietnam War, renamed it the RV Rachel Carson and set it to work testing the pollution levels in Lake Erie.

Meanwhile in the city of Niagara Falls, where Lake Erie cascades into Lake Ontario, there was growing protest in the neighbourhood of Love Canal. Local residents, led by the extraordinary Lois Gibbs, revealed that their houses and school had been built on the site of a toxic waste dump left by the Hooker Chemical company. A long and intense battle unfolded. Eventually President Carter declared a national health emergency and the site was cleaned up. The legacy of this struggle was the passing in 1980 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Better known as the ‘Superfund’, it provided Federal finances to clean places contaminated by toxic waste.

By the 1980’s conditions in Lake Erie had improved so far that it was considered a success story. However, the Reagan, Clinton and Bush Administrations saw the EPA slowly being forced into retreat. In 1988 the Great Lakes National Program had listed 43 ‘areas of concern’, locations along the shores of the lakes which, in an echo of Love Canal, were suffering from ‘severe environmental degradation’. Twenty-five years on only one of these places had been properly re-mediated. Algae blooms reappeared on Lake Erie and the toxins like DDT and mercury were still present in the ecosysytems. The ease with which the Indiana Department of Environmental Management could waive the need for BP to comply with the Clean Water Act was a symptom of the weakness of the EPA under the presidency of George W. Bush.

Shortly after taking office, President Obama signaled a new resolve on environmental issues with the launching of the 2010-14 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Toxins in the lakes were tackled with a greater vigor and finally a number of ‘areas of concern’ were being re-mediated, with the state paying to remove hazardous waste via the Super Fund. One area undergoing remediation is part of the Calumet River as it runs through the City of Hammond, just south of the Whiting plant before emptying into Lake Michigan. The work is overseen by Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The very same body that had allowed BP to pump such high levels of pollutants into the Lake since it acquired the Whiting plant in 1999.

Petcoke-ReportIn the fall of 2013, Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago, came under sufficient pressure to speak out against pollution in the South Chicago neighbourhoods of East Side and South Deering. Just a couple of miles west of the Whiting plant, BP is selling on the waste products of the refinery to the KCBX company. So heavy is the crude from the tar sands that up to a third of every barrel is left as ‘petcoke’, or petroleum coke, a high-carbon and high-sulfur solid which is sold as cheap fuel for power-stations. Whiting was producing petcoke as a byproduct prior to the refining of tar sands, but the sheer amount of it has dramatically increased. The southwest wind blowing across great mounds of petcoke that have been piled up in the yards on the banks of the Calumet River is carrying choking dust through the streets and the houses and into the river itself.

For several decades there has been an oil pipeline system running from Alberta through Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio before heading back into Ontario. The switch of Whiting and other refineries to the processing of tar sands, means that the liquid in the pipelines is no longer oil but the far more corrosive substance from the tar sands. This network belongs to the company Enbridge, is called variously Line 6B, Line 6A and Line 9, and has had a series of disastrous leaks. Like the spill at Talmadge Creek that flows into the Kalamazoo River, almost all of these ruptures have been into the watershed of the Great Lakes. The decisions by BP that turned Whiting into a tar sands factory were taken by a handful of men in London, most importantly John Manzoni, Iain Conn, and Byron Grote, the Chief Financial Officer from 2002 to 2011. The place which they focused their calculations upon, as they considered the question of how to speculate the company’s capital, was that which lay within the confines of the plant. What existed beyond the high security fencing was beyond their responsibility. The communities around the refinery, the southwest wind, the Calumet River, Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes did not exist in their imaginations.

Mid-West-Oil-Pipelines_471x620A map of the tar sands pipelines and refineries used by Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation reveals them as encircling the Great Lakes. It as is though, moving by stealth, under the cover of US presidencies that have scorned the environment, a structure has evolved that is ensnaring the Lakes, threatening the entire watershed.  Over the past decade approximately 50,000 barrels have leaked from Enbridge’s system, and the scale of the spills from the pipelines is edging towards the 100,000 barrels that gushed from the Santa Barbara rig. The pollution caused by the tar sands to these great bodies of water is a slower, more insidious destruction. In the four decades since that disaster off California, a social movement has struggled against those who allow the toxins to pour into the watersheds of America. It is 47 years since the Humpbacks of the Gulf of St Lawrence have been freed of the shadow of commercial whaling. When will they be freed of the poisons flowing through the Great Lakes and down the St Lawrence?

With thanks to Lorne Stockman, Charlie Kronick, Fern Shaffer, Greg Higgs, Marc Weiss, Meleah Geertsma, Ann Alexander and Josh Mogerman.

Over September and October, three Platform staff traveled across North America to promote The Oil Road as well as learn from colleagues and friends there. This is the most recent blog by James Marriott from that trip, but you can also read:

And both of them appeared on Democracy Now! to talk pipelines, money and democracy




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