The BP refinery that spilled up to 1,638 gallons of crude oil may soon be cleaned up, but officials are calling on BP to be held accountable for its actions.
The Whiting refinery, located in northwest Indiana, spilled between 630 and 1,638 gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan this week after a malfunction occurred at one of the refinery’s crude distillation units. So far, cleanup crews have reported “minimal” oiling of Lake Michigan’s shore, and a fisheries expert says most of the lake’s fish are in deeper water off-shore, so they were able to avoid contact with the oil. BP said in a statement Wednesday that cleanup crews had recovered “the vast majority of oil” visible on the surface of the lake and on the shoreline and manually collected oil that had reached the shore. WBEZ Chicago reported that the oil that spilled was a mixture of sweet domestic crude and heavier crude from Canada’s tar sands region, a type of oil the refinery has been upping its processing of, but BP has not confirmed this.
Lyman Welch, Water Quality Program Director at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, told ThinkProgress the spill underscores the Alliance’s concerns about plans to ship tar sands across the Great Lakes to refineries. Currently, tar sands are only shipped by rail and pipeline.
“The spill from BP shows that oil spills can and do happen in the Great Lakes,” he said. “Even at a refinery that was recently upgraded with the latest technology to process tar sands, accidents still take place that can result in an oil spill into Lake Michigan.”
ThinkProgress asked BP to confirm that the spill contained tar sands oil but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Welch said he hopes BP will release a full report on the cause of the spill and what the company will do to prevent future spills — something Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also called for this week.
“There was a leak the other day, and they’re calling it minor,” Emanuel said Wednesday. “I expect a full accounting to the public and the city of Chicago of the damage that was done, how much, what the cleanup efforts were, how comprehensive they have been and what actions the company will take to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Officials have said the spill won’t pose a danger to drinking water in Lake Michigan, which serves as a water source for 7 million people in Chicago alone. But Emanuel said he didn’t want BP taking chances on the lake, which he called “our Yosemite Park, our Grand Canyon.”
Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have also called for a full report on the spill’s cause, as well as an investigation into how a recent expansion at the refinery that allows it to process more crude oil from the Canadian tar sands will affect its ability to clean up future spills.
“Given today’s events and BP’s decision to increase production, we are extremely concerned about the possibility of a future spill that may not be so easily contained,” the senators said in a statement. “We cannot be too careful when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Lake Michigan which serves as the primary source of drinking water for millions of people in and around Chicago.”
Officials say this is likely the first spill that the Whiting refinery has experienced, but it’s not the first time the refinery has been in the news for environmental reasons. In 2007, nearly 50,000 Chicago residents signed petitions protesting a permit that allowed BP to increase its discharge of pollution into Lake Michigan. Rahm Emanuel, then an Illinois representative, said the campaign against the permit marked a “total consciousness change” among people in the city. In response to the outcry BP promised to stick to the pollution limits of its previous permit instead of dumping more into Lake Michigan.
BP has also been involved in legal cases regarding air pollution from the Whiting refinery, and was at the center of a November lawsuit by Chicago residents, who sued BP, Koch Industries, and other companies over the storage of petroleum coke, a byproduct left over from the refining of tar sands oil. The refinery’s recent expansion has made environmentalists concerned about increased tar sands processing at the site, but it’s also created concerns about increased petcoke production — the refinery currently produces about 600,000 tons per year of petcoke, but the expansion has the potential to up its petcoke production to 2.2 million tons per year.
BP now estimates that 15 to 39 barrels — or 630 to 1,638 gallons — of oil spilled into the lake, which is an increase from previous estimates of 378 to 756 gallons. This post has been updated to reflect that change.