WHITING, Indiana – Steve Arnam enjoys surfing at the southern end of Lake Michigan in the shadow of the BP Whiting Refinery, not far from the plant’s outfall pipe, which dumps 18 million gallons of wastewater a day into the lake.
In the fall and winter, when the waves and winds are strongest, Arnam and his friends plunge in with wetsuits and hoods, tiny icicles frosting their beards and eyelashes. The location of the Whiting beach at the southern end of Lake Michigan, beside a long pier, attracts surfers because big waves roll in from the north.
But Arnam and his friends have paid a price for their love of this part of the lake. Arnam, a 63-year-old retired chemistry teacher, said he and others have become ill and suffered infections. And he is frustrated that EPA and the state of Indiana have not done a better job of controlling the water pollution pouring from the BP Whiting Refinery.
“There are a lot of leaks and spillages,” Arnam said, standing on a rocky beach near a dead cormorant, with the flaming smokestacks of the refinery behind him. “You get eye infections from the pollution here sometimes, or gastrointestinal problems if you swallow the water; nasal infections, ear infections; rashes, hives.”
A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project reveals that, across the U.S., 81 refineries discharge a half billion gallons of wastewater a day directly into waterways. That’s as much as 712 Olympic swimming pools every 24 hours.
In the most recent available year, in 2021, this effluent contained 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids (which can be harmful to aquatic life), along with 60,000 pounds of selenium (which can cause mutations in fish), and 15.7 million pounds of algae-feeding nitrogen (as much as from 128 municipal sewage plants), among other pollutants, according to public records and EPA data examined by the Environmental Integrity Project in its report “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls.”
The federal Clean Water Act requires EPA to set limits for pollutants from industrial sources and update them at least every five years as treatment technologies improve. But EPA has never set any limits for refinery discharges of many pollutants, including selenium, benzene, cyanide, mercury, and many others. And EPA has also failed to update the few limits that were established nearly four decades ago, in 1985.
“Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public notice and accountability in the U.S., and too many release a witches’ brew of contaminants to our rivers, lakes and estuaries. This is because of lax federal standards based on wastewater treatment methods that are nearly forty years old,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
“The Clean Water Act requires EPA to impose more stringent standards that reflect the advanced wastewater treatment methods available today. After decades of neglect, EPA needs to comply with the law and set strong effluent limits for refineries that protect public health and environment,” said Schaeffer, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA. “EPA and the states also need to start enforcing the limits that exist and penalizing polluters.”
One of the report’s conclusions is that much of the water pollution from oil refineries today is legal, because EPA and most states have failed to regulate it. But illegal pollution is also a major problem.
EIP’s review of EPA enforcement and compliance data found that almost 83 percent of U.S. refineries (67 of 81) reported violating their permitted limits on water pollutants at least once between 2019 to 2021. But less than a quarter of the refineries with violations (15 of the 67) were penalized during this period.
In Northern Indiana, the BP Whiting Refinery in 2021 discharged 30,765,849 pounds of total dissolved solids into Lake Michigan, along with 9,249,887 pounds of chloride, 574,008 pounds of nitrogen, 7,281,336 pounds of sulfate, 41,720 pounds of oil and grease, 15,757 pounds of phosphorus, 3,589 pounds of selenium, 158 pounds of arsenic, 112 pounds of nickel, and five pounds of benzene, among many other pollutants.
As with many other refineries, much of this pollution is legal, because EPA and the state of Indiana have set relaxed pollution standards for this and other refineries across the U.S. based on outdated technology standards set back to the 1980s.
But some of the pollution is also illegal. The BP Whiting Plant was in violation of its Clean Water Act pollution control permit for five consecutive quarters from July 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, with the plant releasing effluent that had twice permitted overall toxicity, according to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online records. In 2014, the refinery also spilled up to 1,638 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan.
Mike Calabro, a 48-year-old photographer who grew up swimming and surfing near the Whiting Refinery, said he’s smelled petroleum in the water and occasionally witnessed quarter-sized globs of oil clinging to his feet and surfboard.
“I am very concerned about the short- and long-term health effects of everyone who grew up next to BP refinery and other factories in the area,” said Calabro. “I would assume that the pollution from the refinery has caused many illnesses and cancer in the surrounding area. I lost my mother to cancer and other relatives from the area due to cancer.”
The water pollution from the refinery flows not only out into the lake, but also down into the soil and groundwater. More than two decades ago, Amoco, the former owners of the refinery acknowledged that a massive underground plume of at least 16.8 million gallons of oil had leaked out of the complex into the ground in parts of Whiting, Hammond, and East Chicago, Indiana. The size of the underground spill was more than the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Some local residents reported finding petroleum oozing through the walls of their basements and in their backyard pools.
Judith Miller, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said she surfed about a dozen times a year at the Whiting beach until she became pregnant in 2019. Then she stopped swimming in the lake in part because of concerns about pollution.
“The jewel of this part of the country is Lake Michigan, and we need to protect it for all those people who swim in it, walk along it, and fish in it,” said Miller. “For all those people, absolutely, those standards should be updated,” she said of EPA’s standards for wastewater treatment systems at refineries.
This is one of the main conclusions of EIP’s report: That EPA must comply with the federal Clean Water Act and update and strengthen the effluent limitation guidelines(or “ELG’s”) for the refinery industry, after nearly 40 years of neglect.
Among other finding of EIP’s report are the following:
* U.S. refineries are often old –averaging 74 years, but some dating back to the 1880’s – and many have antiquated and inadequate pollution control systems. Most have also expanded over the last forty years, increasing both the volume and variety of pollutants they discharge. But EPA has not updated its standards for refineries since1985.
* Wastewater discharged by 68 percent of the refineries examined (55 of 81) contribute to the “impairment” of downstream waterways – meaning they are too polluted to support aquatic life or allow for recreational uses like swimming or fishing.
* Two-thirds of the refineries examined by EIP (56 of 81) are in areas where the percentage of low-income households within three miles exceeds the national average, and over half are in areas where the percentage of people of color exceeds the national average.
* Sixty-seven refineries were flagged by EPA as violating permitted pollution limits 904 times between 2019 and 2021, including for dumping excessive amounts of cyanide, zinc, total suspended solids, ammonia, and oil and grease.
Despite the frequent violations of water pollution permit limits by refineries, penalties are rare and the fines imposed by EPA and state environmental agencies is often minor.
The following table identifies the 10 refineries that had the most frequent permit violations according to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database and facility discharge monitoring reports, and how seldom they were penalized.
Among the more frequent violators was the Phillips 66 Sweeny Refinery south of Houston, which exceeded its permitted pollution limits 44 times from 2019 to 2021, but was penalized just $30,000, according to EPA records. Forty-two of the refinery’s 44 violations were for cyanide pollution in excess of permitted limits.
Overall, the BP Whiting Refinery in Indiana ranked as among the worst in the nation for selenium pollution (which can harm aquatic life) and nitrogen pollution, which feeds algae blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” in Lake Michigan and elsewhere.
Below is a chart of the worst refineries, ranked by various pollutants.
Complaints about refinery pollution and its impact on waterways come from communities across the U.S. that are near oil refineries, especially lower income communities of color.
For example, Port Arthur, Texas, is a Gulf Coast refinery hub near the Louisiana border that is about three quarters Black or Hispanic. Three of the largest refineries in city – operated by Motiva, TotalEnergies, and Valero – collectively discharge hundreds of thousands of pounds per year of metals, sediment, salts, and nutrients into Alligator Bayou, which eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Fish can no longer live in the bayou because of a cocktail of toxic metals and organic chemicals from nearby plants.
“We are in the belly of the beast,” said John Beard, Executive Director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, referring to the cluster of high-polluting refineries around his neighborhood. “What impact does it have on a largely minority, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community, such as Port Arthur? I like to look at it this way. They don’t build these facilities in Beverly Hills or River Oaks or on Madison Avenue. They don’t build them in communities of affluence that have the way and means to go about seeking justice and correction for what essentially is an injustice that is perpetrated on people in those communities. …They take the path of least resistance. The people who can ill afford it and can’t fight back.”
Across Texas, 19 oil refineries discharge nearly 150 million gallons of wastewater every day into rivers, streams and estuaries. In the most recent year with data available, 2021, this wastewater contained 800 million pounds of total dissolved solids (chlorides, sulfides and other industrial salts) that can harm aquatic life; 21,000 pounds of selenium, which can cause deformities in fish, and five million pounds of nitrogen pollution, which feeds algal blooms and low-oxygen dead zones.
Six of those refineries are in the Houston area – including the ExxonMobil Baytown and Pemex Deer Park refineries – and they discharged 55 million gallons of wastewater per day into the Houston Ship Channel, which flows into Galveston Bay and then the Gulf of Mexico.
"This report reinforces what we all know: For far too long, Houston and the Gulf as a whole have been treated like a sacrifice zone, with the greatest burdens falling on low-income Black and brown communities, including those living along the Houston Ship Channel,” Kristen Schlemmer, Legal Director & Waterkeeper, Bayou City Waterkeeper in Houston. “In this case, the answer is straightforward: EPA must update long-outdated rules to account for the realities of the 21st century and act to hold polluters accountable to these rules through consistent enforcement.”
In the San Francisco area, four refineries – including the Chevron Richmond and Valero Benicia refineries – in 2021 dumped into tributaries to San Francisco Bay at least 1,057 pounds of selenium, 1.2 million pounds of total nitrogen, 32,298pounds of oil and grease, 525 pounds of arsenic, 271 pounds of lead and lead compounds, 196 pounds of cyanide, and 142 pounds of hexavalent chromium, among other pollutants.
Scientists believe the selenium may be contributing to deformities found in more than 80 percent of young Sacramento Splittail, a minnow, found in the Bay area.
“It's high time for EPA to crack down on the toxic pollution from oil refineries that's threatening both wildlife and human health around San Francisco Bay, and across the country,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper. “It's offensive to our frontline communities that EPA has failed to require refineries to reduce the amount of many pollutants that they dump into the Bay, let alone regulate them.”
In Los Angeles County, the Chevron El Segundo Refinery ranked as the worst in the U.S. for discharging nitrogen and selenium pollution, dumping 1,588,015 pounds of nitrogen and 5,257 pounds of selenium in 2021.
Bruce Reznik, Executive Director, the Los Angeles Waterkeeper, said: “Once again, the U.S. Government has turned a blind eye while oil and gas companies pollute our environment, including our sensitive marine ecosystems, and disproportionately harm our frontline communities. We must now put the spotlight on oil refineries’ essentially unregulated water pollution and demand that EPA fulfill its duty under the Clean Water Act by setting, updating, and actually enforcing discharge limits for these refineries.”
Lead photo: A surfer rides near BP Whiting Refinery in Northern Indiana by Mike Calabro, urbancamper.com. Other photos by iStockphoto and Tom Pelton.