INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana's top environmental official told a legislative panel yesterday that he wishes his agency had heard months ago the concerns now being raised about a new permit that will allow a BP oil refinery to dump more pollutants into Lake Michigan.
Thomas Easterly, the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said he was surprised by the uproar over the agency's June approval of the BP refinery permit because turnout was low on April 26 at the sole public meeting on the permit.
He said that meeting was devoid of the strong criticism the agency now faces.
"This is one of my frustrations in this process of what's happened since then because BP came, the environmental community we'd been working with came, one citizen came," Mr. Easterly said. "It was a very quiet event and we didn't hear then what we've heard since then."
The permit allows BP's Whiting refinery, just east of Chicago, to increase the amount of ammonia it dumps into the lake by 54 percent and the amount of suspended solids by 35 percent by 2011. It's needed for BP's $3.8 billion expansion of the refinery to process more heavy Canadian crude oil.
In the two months since it was approved in June, a growing number of critics have said the permit amounts to a reversal of decades-long efforts to reduce pollution levels in the lake. The U.S. House passed a resolution in July calling for Indiana to reconsider the permit.
On Aug. 13, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels ordered a review of state laws covering Great Lakes water quality and permits.
During Tuesday's hearing before the Administrative Rules Oversight Committee, Mr. Easterly defended IDEM's handling of the permit process, saying his agency felt no "undue pressure" from other state officials to approve the permit.
He said the additional discharges the permit allows are within Indiana's and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory standards. "This is a good permit. This is a very restrictive permit," Mr. Easterly said. "I'm not aware of people doing much better than this."
He said IDEM made an "extraordinary" effort to reach out to northwestern Indiana environmental groups, first contacting them in January about the permit. A public notice detailing the document appeared March 16, and the typical 30-day public comment period was extended until May 11 to allow more time for comment, he said.
Before yesterday's hearing, Timothy Mitchell, the superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District, held a news conference outside the Statehouse room where the panel met to display petitions with the signatures of about 70,000 Chicago residents opposed to the BP permit. Those signatures, stacked 2 1/2-feet high, were turned over to the committee.
Mr. Mitchell said the new permit for the BP refinery has upset Chicago residents, many of whom signed the petitions at the city's beaches or parks.
"This permit increases the amount of ammonia and pollutants into our lake - the very lake we rely on as a source for clean and fresh drinking water," he said.
The committee also heard testimony from Dan Sajkowski, the manager of BP's Whiting refinery, environmentalists, and business representatives.
Mr. Sajkowski faced criticism from some committee members who asked why BP, which posted a net profit of $7.38 billion in the second quarter, could not afford to install additional pollution controls at the refinery.
Mr. Sajkowski said the company had researched several technologies intended to remove additional pollutants but determined they were not yet feasible.
"Do you really think we would undergo this kind of scrutiny if there was something off the shelf that we could pop in place and make it all go away?" he asked.
The committee's chairman, state Rep. Scott Pelath (D., Michigan City) said after the meeting that he wouldn't be surprised if BP eventually added some type of additional treatment process for the wastewater at its expanded refinery.