ByRyan Callahan

May 21, 2014

BP’s $3.8 billion upgrade of its crude refinery in Whiting, IN was a comedy of errors long before hundreds of gallons of oil from the refinery spilled into Lake Michigan. Well, maybe “comedy of errors” is the wrong phrase. “Comedy” implies something funny, or at the very least happy, and there’s nothing funny or happy about polluting the air, filling neighborhoods with petcoke and pumping mercury into the water. And “errors” implies that mistakes were made, that the pollution happened by accident, that the damage was unintentional. So let me re-write that first sentence: BP’s $3.8 billion upgrade of its crude refinery in Whiting, IN was a tragedy of escalating devious behavior with complete disregard for the heath and well-being of the citizens of the Greater Chicago area long before hundreds of gallons of oil from the refinery spilled into Lake Michigan. Yeah. That’s more like it.

It all started nearly a decade ago when BP wanted to jump on that sweet Canadian crude bandwagon. Of course, they needed a permit to upgrade their facilities and start processing the new crude. But BP decided they didn’t need a permit and started processing oil anyway, which led to a significant increase in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, soot and carbon monoxide production. When they got caught, BP used the “nuh-uh” defense, a favorite of children everywhere. They said they talked it over and nuh-uh, they didn’t need a permit. I’d like to try that in court someday. Your honor, I understand that you think I need a permit to sell AR-15s in a playground, but I talked it over with my friends and, nuh-uh, I don’t need one.” Okay, that probably won’t work for me, but it sure did for BP. Nothing happened. I mean, they had to get a permit, but they weren’t punished.

As BP worked on the permit, the EPA discovered that the Whiting refinery had violated federal pollution limits on benzene (that has been linked to leukemia) for six years. The federal limit for benzene is six tons a year. In one year, the Whiting refinery released 95 tons of that junk into the world. Caught red-handed, what did BP do? They used their pollution as an argument for modernization of the refinery. “We’d didn’t want to pollute the environment, but our refinery is so out of date. If only we had that permit.” That’s like a husband cheating on his wife for years and, once discovered, using his infidelities as proof that he needs to have threesomes.

Remember when I said they had the lawmakers in their pocket? Well, around this same time, it was discovered that the state of Indiana had offered BP a permit that would allow them to dump twenty times the legal limit of mercury into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan, by the way, serves as the drinking water for over 7 million people. Mercury, by the way, is something you do not want in your body. When this was discovered, of course, all hell broke loose. And BP was forced to accept a modified permit, one that allowed them to dump mercury into Lake Michigan at seven times the federal limit. Big victory for the little guy! Now future generations of Chicagoans will only drool uncontrollably on occasion instead of all the time.

So, we have a company with a history of pumping pollutants into the air and spilling oil into the sea. We have a refinery with a history of sending pollution in every direction. And we have a local government willing to look the other way. In other words, we’re ready to go! Because, obviously nothing bad would happen once they were able to process the dirtiest, nastiest crude oil known to man.

Oh, wait, the spill. There was an oil spill right after they opened. Man, who could have seen that coming?

In the wake of the spill, everyone played their part. BP didn’t have a lot of info about how or why or when the spill started but they knew that a “mix of heavy and light oil somehow leaked into a sealed cooling system.” You have to love the use of the word “somehow” there. Just the utter contempt. “Yeah, this happened. What are you gonna do about it?” And how did the local politicians respond? Did they threaten to shut down the refinery or hit BP with heavy fines until all the problems were fixed? No, of course not. They buried their heads in piles of petcoke and politely asked for a report on the incident, whenever BP gets around to it. They don’t want answers or changes. They want a story. And BP will be happy to give to them. If you live in Chicago, I’d recommend stocking up on bottled water.

By Ryan Callahan

Ryan Callahan is a writer, director, and sandwich enthusiast. Ryan believes that taking care of the environment is important because that’s where the animals live. Animals make the best parts of the sandwich.