Chicago-area oil refineries dumping toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan and other waterways are one of the worst sources of pollution in the United States, study shows


Oil refineries are dumping large amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the Great Lakes and the nation’s rivers, according to a new analysis that finds some of the worst sources of pollution in the Chicago area.

In 2021 alone, 81 U.S. refineries with on-site waste treatment released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids that are harmful to fish and other aquatic life. Environmental conservation project determined in it Federal Data Review.

The refinery also collectively dumped 60,000 pounds of selenium and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, elements that can mutate fish. They cause algal blooms and dead zones that contaminate water in important fisheries such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Gulf of Mexico. Mexico.

Most of the refineries are located in low-income, predominantly black and Latinx communities facing disproportionate health risks from industrial pollution.

Despite the requirements of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which mandated that standards for various chemicals and metals be reviewed at least every five years based on the latest science and improvements in water treatment technology, federal and state officials Some refinery contamination is legal because the US could not limit it. .

“There are refineries that appear to be law-abiding, but the standards are decades old and they really don’t need much,” said the group’s executive director and director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Former Civil Enforcement Officer Eric Schaefer said. agency.

Three Chicago-area refineries — Indiana’s BP Whiting, ExxonMobil Joliet and Remont’s SitGo — are highlighting the consequences of lax regulation and weak enforcement, Mr. Schaefer said in an online press conference Thursday. said in

Even where restrictions are in place, oil companies often pay minimal fines for breaking the law. Some people are not punished at all.

The Joliet Refinery, located on the Des Plaines River southwest of the city, exceeded acceptable levels of pollution by 40 times between 2019 and 2021, federal records show. Neither the federal nor state governments have sued ExxonMobil or fined them for repeat violations.

BP Whiting Refinery in Northwest Indiana on April 24, 2017.
Sittgo Refinery in Remont on May 15, 2019.

Only three refineries, located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, about eight miles from the Chicago water intake, emitted more selenium than BP Whiting. Small amounts of the element are healthy, but high levels can cause hair and nail loss, gastrointestinal disturbances, dizziness, and tremors.

According to the analysis, Citgo Lemont and ExxonMobil Joliet ranked fifth and ninth respectively for selenium contamination.

The public beach near the Whiting Refinery is a popular spot for surfers who are drawn to the big waves that blow the winter winds across Lake Michigan from Canada.

Mitch McNeill, president of the local chapter of the non-profit advocacy group Surfrider, said he and other surfers swam in dark brown water that alternately smelled like metal, sewage, oil and petroleum. He later said he suffered from eye, ear and urinary tract infections, as well as gastrointestinal ailments.

“People always ask me why I keep surfing in dirty water,” McNeil said. “Our response was, we surf, but you drink it, so you should be as concerned as we are.

BP faces regular investigations into air pollution from its Whiting refinery. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that regulators in Indiana were planning to relax restrictions on the release of ammonia, brain-damaging mercury and suspended solids (small particles of sewage sludge) from refineries. Since then, water pollution has received less attention.

The company later withdrew and vowed to abide by the terms of the existing permit.

response to New analysis Regarding federal data, BP has stated that “as part of our commitment to safe, compliant and reliable operations not only at the Whiting Refinery, but at all facilities where BP operates around the world, We will continue to operate,” he said.

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 contaminants.

“Our industry takes seriously our obligation to protect our nation’s water bodies and has implemented local, state and federal regulations to ensure that water is properly treated and tested before it leaves our facilities. We adhere to strict requirements.Statement.

Shaffer, the former EPA civil enforcement officer, noted that federal pollution standards for refineries and several other industrial sectors have not been updated since Ronald Reagan took office in the 1980s.

Federal judges are watching. Calling existing standards obsolete is a “philanthropic understatement.” Federal Court of Appeal It was concluded in 2019 after the EPA updated its 1982 limits on water pollution from coal-fired power plants.

environmental groups asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan Why government agencies have been so slow to meet their legal obligations under the Clean Water Act in 2021. The EPA acknowledged the letter but did not respond.

An EPA spokesperson said the EPA is aware of the new contamination analysis and will “review and respond accordingly.”

largely top polluting refineries Located along the Gulf of Mexico in California or Texas and Louisiana. Also in the top 10 is the Phillips 66 Refinery at Wood River on the Mississippi River. Wood River is a small, industrialized Illinois city located above St. Louis.

The Wood River Refinery released more fish-harming nickel than any other facility studied. It also ranks in the top 10 for selenium, nitrogen and total dissolved solids emissions.

For those living near refineries, the new report reflects what they see, smell, breathe and ingest when eating locally caught fish.

Former refinery worker John Beard, who heads the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said communities like him are pushing to enforce air and water laws because they can’t afford to fight for a cleaner environment. said it relied on the EPA.

“[Oil companies]will not build these facilities in Beverly Hills, River Oaks[Houston]Madison Avenue,” Beard said. “They don’t build prosperous communities with the ways and means to seek justice and correction.”

“A lot of people are saying that we need jobs and we need all these products that[oil companies]produce,” Beard added. “It’s true. But you don’t need the pollution that comes with it.


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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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