GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new analysis of industry data supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that the five largest wastewater polluters in the U.S. oil refining industry are located in the Great Lakes region, and one of them discharges directly into the air . Michigan.
The analysis was published in January Environmental Integrity Projecta nonprofit organization that calls itself a watchdog to make sure the EPA is properly enforcing environmental laws.
U “Uncontrolled oil spills” The EIP reports that in 2021, 81 refineries nationwide released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids into wastewater. That doesn’t include the 10,000 pounds of nickel, 60,000 pounds of selenium and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen that the study pointed to.
While the EPA is organizing the information, EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer told News 8 the data is actually being collected by individual refineries and submitted to the agency.
“At the end of the day, it’s (EPA’s) duty to control their emissions. They report some of the pollutants we’ve looked at, but often (refineries) don’t have to,” Schaeffer said. “We looked at some pollutants that the EPA doesn’t currently regulate. We looked at them because they’re harmful.”
One of EIP’s main concerns is how “outdated” the current EPA regulations are. The nonprofit organization says latest pollution standards set for industrial discharges was established in the Clean Water Act of 1985.
“And that was just for stormwater. Treated sewage is generally the most toxic. Those standards were (established) in 1982,” Schaeffer said.
While the EPA may not have set standards or requirements for testing for specific pollutants, many states do. This allowed EIP to conduct further research and build a more detailed picture of what pollution looks like in the industry.
“Our data comes from several sources,” Schaeffer told News 8. “One of them is when a government agency, for its own reasons, requires monitoring of an oil refinery.” One of the pollutants we studied is selenium. We collect this data and use it. If that data isn’t there, we go to the permit applications because they require companies when they come to renew those permits to disclose what they’re putting in the water.”
THE WORST OF THE WORST
Between the three main pollutants — selenium, nickel and nitrogen — five sites in the Great Lakes region ranked among the top 10 polluters.
Phillips 66’s Wood River refinery in southern Illinois ranked in the top 10 for all three facilities, producing more nickel than any other U.S. refinery, sixth-most selenium and seventh-most nitrogen.
The Citgo refinery in Lemont, Illinois, about 25 miles southwest of Chicago, emitted the fourth-most nitrogen and the fifth-most selenium.
Koch Industries’ Pine Bend refinery in Minnesota ranked fourth for selenium, while ExxonMobil’s Joliet, Illinois refinery ranked ninth for selenium.
While these four refineries are responsible for a significant amount of regional pollution. They do not flow directly into the Great Lakes. The same cannot be said for the BP Whiting refinery located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan.
In 2021, the Whiting refinery released 3,589 pounds of selenium, the third most of any U.S. refinery that year. That same year, it released 574,008 pounds of nitrogen, the fifth-most in the nation.
The Whiting refinery has four main discharge points: two that flow directly into Lake Michigan, and two that flow into the Lake George Canal, which flows into Lake Michigan.
THE IMPACT OF B. P. WHITING
While the amount of selenium pales in comparison to the amount of nitrogen dumped into the lake, it is arguably the most dangerous of the three major pollutants that served as the focus of the EIP analysis.
“Heavy metal compounds can get into the sediment and get into the water column,” Schaeffer said. “Once in the environment, it can hang around for a long time. States around the Great Lakes have been cleaning up heavy metal pollution for decades.”
Rick Redisk, professor of environmental chemistry at Grand Valley State University Anis Institute of Water Resourcestold News 8 that selenium poisoning can cause a wide range of problems involving the blood and organs.
“We must have selenium. This is a trace element. But there’s a fine line between too much,” Rediske said. “It’s a real toxicant.”
Research conducted in California has found, among other things, widespread selenium poisoning noticeable deformation of the spine. It also causes other tissue damage and makes it difficult for fish to reproduce.
Like selenium, nickel is also a heavy metal and plays a similar role in the ecosystem. High levels of toxicity are transmitted through the food chain. It is ingested by small creatures such as zebrafish and small fish and transmitted to animals that eat them. Redisk says a team of scientists is investigating how migratory birds in Canada are affected by eating Great Lakes zebra mussels, which contain toxic levels of heavy metals that are killing the birds.
“Selenium and nickel can be absorbed by mussels. And then zebrafish is food for birds and other organisms. It’s a local food chain problem,” Rediske told News 8.
Nitrogen affects the ecosystem in other ways. Nitrogen helps stimulate plant growth and algae blooms. Plants and algae, in turn, draw more oxygen from the water, leaving less for fish and other wildlife.
Unlike Lake Erie, which regularly combats excessive algal bloomsLake Michigan has several factors that contribute to the control of large blooms.
“Lake Erie is a smaller lake, so it’s warmer, and because of the warmer temperatures, nitrogen is more of a problem,” Redisk said.
Lake Michigan has algae blooms, but most stay close to shore and are much smaller.
ANOTHER KEY POLLUTANT
Redisk says selenium, nickel and nitrogen contamination is primarily a local problem. These elements will not move too far from their source. Another likely refinery pollutant that surrounds the entire Great Lakes water system? PFAS.
EIP analysis indicated that oil refineries are also a likely source PFAS contamination. There are currently no restrictions on PFAS – either per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in refinery wastewater, but the few refineries that have sampled for PFAS have found extremely high levels of the chemicals in wastewater and effluent.
According to the EIP, a 2020 test at a Suncor refinery in Colorado found 290 parts per trillion of PFOS (one of thousands of different forms of PFAS). The national threshold for safe drinking water is 0.02 percent PFOS.
Like heavy metal pollution, PFAS can cause several negative health problems, including complications with the human reproductive system, immune system, thyroid gland, and liver. PFAS are now also considered carcinogens, meaning they cause higher rates of cancer.
The main difference is that PFAS does this on a smaller scale.
“It’s much more significant at low concentrations. We’re talking parts per trillion (compared to) parts per million and parts per billion with others,” Rediske said.
Schafer says the EPA is well aware of the dangers of PFAS, but the regulatory red tape is far from over too slow for a proper answer.
“We think testing is necessary, and of course the EPA will see that. They’re trying to set PFAS standards for chemical plants,” Schaeffer said. “One of the issues we raise in this report is the EPA’s habit of going one industry at a time. And sometimes when you have a pollutant like PFAS or nitrogen, we think you can set standards that cover more than one industry category.”
He continued: “If you go one sector at a time, it will take 100 years to introduce standards. We see experience here. It has been nearly 40 years since the EPA last considered setting limits for oil refineries. They didn’t make it. PFAS is one of those things that we should be on emergency mode for.”
Schaeffer isn’t the only one who feels this way. Resolution from 2019 Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently called out the agency for its slow response.
“The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals covers Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. It is one of the most conservative courts in the country. They went after the EPA on the coal plant rule for the delay and lag time that the EPA showed when setting the standards,” Schaeffer said. “This is an opinion, with two of the three judges being (former President Donald) Trump appointees. They said the standards are pretty clear. You have a legal obligation to continue to improve and strengthen effluent limits as technology improves.”
News 8 reached out to BP and the EPA for comment, but did not hear back by the end of the business day Friday.
Suggest a correction