Oil refineries are dumping toxic pollutants into our waterways and Great Lakes with little oversight from regulators.
Three of the worst polluters are the refineries right here in the Chicago area: BP’s Whiting Refinery in Indiana, Exxon Mobil’s Joliet Refinery, and Citgo’s Lemont Refinery.
This is the discovery of a new report of the Environmental Integrity Projecta non-partisan non-profit group advocating for environmental law enforcement that has analyzed data on toxic discharges from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“Most refinery pollution is not subject to any federal standards at all under the Clean Water Act, which is quite alarming since the Clean Water Act is more than 50 years old,” said Eric Schaeffer, co-founder and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The few federal standards we have apply to only a subset of pollutants. They don’t cover some of the more dangerous toxins discharged from refineries. They don’t cover nitrogen, they don’t cover sulphates and chlorides. … And so, not surprisingly, there’s a lot of that pollution coming from refineries and Illinois has some of the worst pollutants that we’ve looked at.
One pollutant they focused on was selenium, which is highly toxic to fish and can cause dizziness, hair loss and gastrointestinal problems in humans.
“When you look at the BP Whiting refinery and the Lemont and Joliet refineries — and actually down in Wood River in the southern part of the state near St. Louis — you have four of the top 10 US selenium discharges among the refineries we looked at said Schaeffer. “And this is really important because selenium is highly toxic in fish in very, very small amounts, measured in parts per billion. So when you dump thousands of pounds of selenium into a river or the Great Lakes, it will have an impact”.
And that impact will continue long after the discharges stop.
Democratic state representative Ann Williams, who currently chairs the Illinois General Assembly’s Energy and Environment Committee, described the report as “worrying.”
“I thought the report was really well done and it seems to me that it all falls into two categories,” Williams said. “First of all, do we need — and it certainly looks like the answer is ‘yes’ — to update our stream emission standards to the federal level, number one? And number two, are we properly applying the regulations that we have? And this is true at both the state and federal levels.”
Williams also believes the US Environmental Protection Agency needs to explain why it isn’t doing more to address the situation.
“That’s the million-dollar question that we need to determine,” Williams said. “The Clean Water Act was developed precisely with the goal of creating a regulatory framework that could be updated as technology improved. So every five years the EPA should come back to evaluate new technologies and see if because of the new technologies (they should improve the standards and requirements to keep pollutants out of the water).
It doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on, even though that’s how the facility was designed.
According to Schaeffer, EPA hasn’t updated regulatory standards for wastewater treatment for decades, though it is expected to update them every five years.
“What we live with now are the standards set in the early 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s first term for refineries that cover only a handful of pollutants and have never been updated,” Schaeffer said.
The EPA said in a statement to WTTW News that it “is aware of the report and will review and respond accordingly.”
According to a statement from the Illinois EPA, discharge data for the Illinois-based refineries “evidence of no permit violations related to those discharges that would warrant enforcement action.”
Exxon Mobil said in a statement, “We operate our refineries in compliance with stringent local, state and federal regulations and are always working to improve environmental performance.”
Note: This article will be updated with the video.