CHICAGO — A new unit at BP’s Whiting facilities used to process Canadian tar sands oil into gasoline and other fuels spilled an unknown amount of crude oil into Lake Michigan Monday, just a few miles from an intake at one of Chicago’s municipal water plants.
Neither BP officials nor government regulators have been able to determine yet how the spill occurred or how much damage it has caused. Workers at the tar sands refinery, which BP built as the centerpiece of a $4-billion overhaul of the Whiting refinery less than a year ago, discovered an oil slick on the lake around 4:30 p.m. Monday afternoon. The Whiting refinery sits just south of Chicago across the Indiana state line.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official arrived at the BP facility at 9 p.m. Monday and reported that the leak had been plugged. He said that there was no impact to wildlife or human health “at this time,” but made no statement regarding the type and volume of the substance spilled.
The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement that responders to the scene found an area of about 5,000 square feet covered in oil. BP deployed 1,000 feet of boom and six vacuum trucks in its immediate cleanup response, but some of the oil had reached the shoreline, the Coast Guard reported.
The icy waters of Lake Michigan congealed much of the oil, creating waxy tar balls that began washing ashore hours after the spill.
According to BP, the malfunction occurred at the facility’s largest distillation unit when a mixture of heavy and light oil leaked into a sealed cooling system used to circulate water between Lake Michigan and the refinery.
The current oil spill is not the first time BP’s Whiting facility, the seventh largest oil refinery in the U.S., has released pollution into Lake Michigan. With friends in Indiana’s legislature and regulatory agencies, BP has been allowed to dump dangerous levels of ammonia, mercury, and factory sludge containing other toxic metals in the lake that serves as the source of drinking water and recreation for millions of residents.
According to the Chicago Tribune, BP was on track with a couple of promising technological solutions to mitigate its toxic waste problem, but then Indiana environmental regulators stepped into the picture and exempted BP from adhering to federal mercury standards of 1.3 parts per trillion, allowing it to dump nearly 18 times that amount into the water. The exemption, which was supposed to expire last year, cleared the way for the massive refinery expansion. Indiana officials extended the exemption once, and it remains in place.
The Chicago Tribune: