GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new analysis of industry data maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that five of the worst wastewater polluters in the American oil refinery industry are in the Great Lakes region and one of them dumps directly into Lake Michigan.
The analysis was released in January by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a watchdog to make sure the EPA properly enforces environmental laws.
In “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls,” the EIP reports the 81 oil refineries across the country released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids in its wastewater in 2021. That doesn’t include the 10,000 pounds of nickel, 60,000 pounds of selenium and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen that drew the focus of the study.
While the EPA organizes the information, EIP Executive Director Eric Shaeffer told News 8 that the data is actually collected by the individual oil refineries and submitted to the agency.
“Ultimately, (the EPA) is required to monitor their discharges. They report some of the pollutants that we looked at, but a lot of times (the refineries) are not required to,” Shaeffer said. “We looked at some pollutants that the EPA currently doesn’t regulate. We looked at them because they are harmful.”
One of the EIP’s primary concerns is how “outdated” the EPA’s current regulations are. The nonprofit says the last pollution standards set for industrial discharges were set in 1985’s Clean Water Act.
“And that was just for stormwater. Processed wastewater is generally the most toxic. Those standards were (set in) 1982,” Shaeffer said.
While the EPA may not have set standards or requirements for testing on specific pollutants, many states do. That allowed the EIP to do more digging and paint a more detailed picture of what that industry-wide pollution looks like.
“Our data comes from a couple of sources,” Shaeffer told News 8. “One is if the state agency, for its own reasons, requires a refinery to monitor. One of the pollutants we studied like selenium. We pick up that data and we used it. If that data doesn’t exist, we go to the permit applications because those require the companies when they come in to renew those permits to disclose what they are putting into the water.”
THE WORST OF THE WORST
Between the primary three pollutants — selenium, nickel and nitrogen — five facilities in the Great Lakes region were among the top 10 polluters.
The Phillips 66 Wood River refinery in southern Illinois made the top 10 for all three: discharging more nickel than any other U.S. facility, the sixth-most selenium and the seventh-most nitrogen.
Citgo’s refinery in Lemont, Illinois — about 25 miles southwest of Chicago — discharged the fourth-most nitrogen and fifth-most selenium.
Koch Industries’ Pine bend refinery in Minnesota discharged the fourth-most selenium while ExxonMobil’s refinery in Joliet, Illinois, discharged the ninth-most selenium.
While those four refineries are responsible for a substantial amount of regional pollution. They don’t flow directly into the Great Lakes. The same can’t be said for BP’s Whiting refinery that sits on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan.
The Whiting refinery discharged 3,589 pounds of selenium in 2021, the third-most of any U.S refinery that year. That same year it discharged 574,008 pounds of nitrogen, fifth-most in the country.
The Whiting refinery has four primary discharge points: two that dump directly into Lake Michigan and two that dump into the Lake George Canal — which flows into Lake Michigan.
BP WHITING’S IMPACT
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 primary three pollutants that served as the focus of the EIP analysis.
“The heavy metal compound can get into the sediment and get into the water column,” Shaeffer said. “Once it’s in the environment, it can hang around for a long time. The states around the Great Lakes have been cleaning up heavy metal contaminants for decades now.”
Rick Rediske, an environmental chemical professor with Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, told News 8 that selenium poisoning can cause a wide variety of problems related to blood and organs.
“We have to have selenium. It’s a trace element. But there’s a fine line between too much,” Rediske said. “It’s a true toxicant.”
Studies out of California have found widespread selenium poisoning there, including a notable spinal deformity. It also causes other tissue damage and makes it harder 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 passed through the food chain. It’s absorbed by small creatures like zebra mussels and small fish and is passed along to animals who eat them. Rediske says a team of scientists are researching how migratory birds in Canada are being impacted by eating zebra mussels from the Great Lakes that have toxic levels of heavy metals, leading to die-offs.
“The selenium and nickel can get taken up by the zebra mussels. And then the zebra mussels are food for birds and other organisms. It’s a local food chain issue,” Rediske told News 8.
Nitrogen impacts the ecosystem in a different way. Nitrogen helps spur plant growth and algal blooms. The plants and algae, in turn, draw more oxygen out of the water, leaving less for fish and other wildlife.
Unlike Lake Erie, which regularly deals with excessive algal blooms, Lake Michigan has several factors working in its favor to fight large blooms.
“Lake Erie is a smaller lake, so it’s warmer, and because of the higher temperature, that nitrogen is more of an issue,” Rediske said.
There are algal blooms on Lake Michigan, but most stay close to shore and are much smaller.
THE OTHER KEY POLLUTANT
Rediske says the pollution from selenium, nickel and nitrogen is primarily a local concern. Those elements won’t travel too far from their source. Another likely refinery pollutant that is circling the entire Great Lakes water system? PFAS.
The EIP analysis found that oil refineries are also a likely source of PFAS pollution. There are currently no limits for PFAS — or 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 runoff.
According to the EIP, testing down in 2020 at the 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 ppt of PFOS.
Just like heavy metal pollution, PFAS can cause several negative health issues, including complications with a person’s reproductive system, immune system, thyroid and liver. PFAS are also now considered a carcinogen, meaning they cause higher rates of cancers.
The key difference is PFAS does it on a way 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 the other ones,” Rediske said.
Shaeffer says the EPA is well aware of the dangers of PFAS, but the red tape of regulations is far too slow for a proper response.
“We think that testing needs to be required and surely the EPA will see that. They are trying to set PFAS standards for chemical plants,” Shaeffer said. “One of the questions we are raising with this report is the EPA’s habit is to go one industry at a time. And sometimes, when you have a cross-cutting pollutant like PFAS or like nitrogen, we think you can set standards that cut across more than one industrial category.”
He continued: “If you’re going one sector at a time, it takes 100 years to get standards in place. We can see the experience here. It’s been nearly 40 years since the EPA last even considered setting limits for refineries. They haven’t kept up. PFAS is one of those things that we need to be in emergency mode for.”
Shaeffer isn’t the only one who feels this way. A 2019 ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently called out the agency for its slow reaction time.
“The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals covers Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. It’s 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 in setting standards,” Shaeffer said. “This is an opinion with two out of the three judges were (former President Donald) Trump appointees. They said the standards are pretty clear. You’ve got a statutory obligation to keep improving and making more stringent wastewater limits as technology gets better.”
News 8 reached out to BP and the EPA for comment but did not hear back as of close of business Friday.