Oil refineries are dumping massive amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the Great Lakes and the nation’s rivers with little, if any, oversight from government regulators, according to a new analysis that found some of the worst polluters are in the Chicago area.
During 2021 alone, 81 refineries in the United States that treat waste on-site released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids harmful to fish and other aquatic life, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project determined in its review of federal data.
The refineries also collectively discharged 60,000 pounds of selenium, an element that can mutate fish, and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, which contributes to water-fouling algae blooms and dead zones in important fisheries such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the refineries are in low-income, predominantly Black and Latino communities that face disproportionate health risks from industrial pollution.
Some refinery pollution is legal because federal and state officials have failed to limit it, despite requirements in the 1972 Clean Water Act mandating a review of standards for various chemicals and metals at least every five years based on the latest science and improvements in water treatment technology.
“You have refineries that may look like they are complying with the law, but the standards are decades old and really don’t require very much,” said Eric Schaeffer, the group’s executive director and former chief of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Three Chicago-area refineries — BP Whiting in Indiana, ExxonMobil Joliet and Citgo in Lemont — highlight the consequences of lax regulations and weak enforcement, Schaeffer said Thursday during an online news conference.
Even when limits are in place, oil companies often pay minimal fines for violating the law. Some aren’t penalized at all.
The Joliet refinery, on the Des Plaines River southwest of the city, exceeded its permitted levels of pollution 40 times between 2019 and 2021, federal records show. Neither federal nor state officials have sued ExxonMobil or fined the company for its repeated infractions.
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Only three other refineries discharged more selenium than BP Whiting, located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan about 8 miles from one of Chicago’s water intake cribs. Small doses of the element are healthy, but higher levels can cause hair and nail loss, gastrointestinal distress, dizziness and tremors.
Citgo Lemont and ExxonMobil Joliet ranked fifth and ninth for selenium pollution, respectively, the analysis showed.
A public beach near the Whiting refinery is a popular spot for surfers drawn by big waves when winter winds whip down Lake Michigan from Canada.
Mitch McNeil, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he and other surfers have suffered eye, ear and urinary tract infections and gastrointestinal illnesses after swimming in dark brown water that smells alternately like metal, sewage, petroleum and a used ashtray.
“People always ask us why we keep surfing in dirty water,” McNeil said. “Our response is we surf in it but you drink it, so you should be just as concerned as we are.”
BP routinely faces scrutiny about air pollution from the Whiting refinery. Water pollution hasn’t drawn as much attention since the Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that Indiana regulators were planning to relax limits on the refinery’s discharges of ammonia, brain-damaging mercury and suspended solids — tiny particles of sewage sludge.
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The company later backed down and vowed to abide by the terms of its existing permit.
Responding to the new analysis of federal data, BP said it will “continue to operate consistent with its permit as part of our commitment to safe, compliant and reliable operations, not just at Whiting refinery but at every facility BP operates around the world.”
Speaking on behalf of the oil industry in general, the American Petroleum Institute did not directly answer questions about the lack of standards for selenium and other pollutants.
“Our industry takes seriously its obligation to protect our nation’s waters and adheres to strict local, state and federal requirements to ensure water is properly treated and tested prior to leaving a facility,” Will Hupman, the trade group’s vice president of downstream policy said in a statement.
Schaeffer, the former chief of civil enforcement at the EPA, noted that federal pollution standards for refineries and several other industry sectors haven’t been updated since Ronald Reagan was president during the 1980s.
Federal judges are taking notice. Calling existing standards out of date is a “charitable understatement,” a federal appellate court concluded after the EPA in 2019 updated its 1982 limits on water pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Environmental groups asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan in 2021 why the agency had fallen so far behind in meeting its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act. The EPA acknowledged the letter but didn’t respond.
An EPA spokesman said the agency is aware of the new pollution analysis “and will review and respond accordingly.”
Most of the top polluting refineries are in California or along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Louisiana. Also in the top 10 is a Phillips 66 refinery on the Mississippi River in Wood River, a small, heavily industrialized Illinois city upstream from St. Louis.
The Wood River refinery released more fish-harming nickel than any of the other facilities reviewed. It also ranked among the top 10 for discharges of selenium, nitrogen and total dissolved solids.
For people who live near refineries, the new report reflects what they see, smell and breathe — and ingest when eating locally caught fish.
John Beard, a former refinery worker who leads the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said communities like his rely on the EPA to enforce air and water laws because they can’t afford to fight for a cleaner environment.
“(Oil companies) don’t build these facilities in Beverly Hills, or River Oaks (in Houston) or Madison Avenue,” Beard said. “They don’t build in communities of affluence that have the ways and means to go about seeking justice and correction.”
“Many people say we need the jobs and we need all these products (oil companies) produce,” Beard added. “That’s true. But we don’t need the pollution that comes with it, and they can do better.”