Science & Technology



Northwest Indiana residents, upset over refinery pollution, take complaints to public meeting

Alex Dalton, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

Bearing signs with slogans like “East Chicago demands clear air” and “IDEM, let us breathe,” nearly 100 Northwest Indiana residents and environmental advocates gathered to voice anger and frustration at BP Whiting refinery at a Thursday public meeting held by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Held on the campus of Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Indiana, the event was an opportunity for members of the public to weigh in on a pending air permit renewal application submitted by BP for its refinery. Though the meeting was part of the routine re-permitting process that IDEM undertakes every five years, interest in the event was high due to a series of publicized environmental incidents.

In January, equipment failures at the refinery caused two separate tank leaks that resulted in a release of benzene and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere and spread a strong chemical odor across Northwest Indiana and into the South suburbs of Illinois. On Feb. 2, the facility was evacuated and temporarily shut down following a power failure that led to unplanned gas flaring and the precautionary closure of nearby roads by local law enforcement.

In the wake of the incidents, region residents have taken to social media in droves to complain of headaches, nausea and other negative symptoms that they have attributed to airborne pollutants from the refinery.

“Maybe if you had to wake up each day with your with a sore throat or a headache, you’d understand the deep sadness we have,” East Chicago resident Elizabeth Palacio told representatives of IDEM’s Office of Air Quality. “That we see completely that you ignore us in the region.”

During more than two and a half hours of testimony, community members urged IDEM to use the permitting process to impose more stringent safety and emissions requirements on BP.


Carolyn Marsh, a Whiting resident and longtime environmental advocate, asked that BP’s permit be amended to include a requirement that the company give public notice of future emergencies and emissions incidents.

“What we need is a community benefits agreement. In that agreement, we have to have a warning system,” Marsh said. “We need to know immediately when that plant is in trouble … to be ready and prepared to stay indoors or to be prepared to leave your house.”

Throughout the meeting, IDEM staff repeatedly stressed the limited scope of its permitting process, which curbs the power of the agency to set rules for polluters.

BP is legally required to report any excess emissions or irregular operations at the refinery to IDEM, which is responsible for investigating incidents and taking appropriate enforcement actions. Permitting, however, is largely separate from the agency’s enforcement role, and past permit violations are typically not taken into account during the re-permitting process.


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