BP refinery hit with $40 million fine, agrees to spend $200 million on pollution control

Owner of Whiting, Indiana, operation settled with federal officials over allegations it released excessive amounts of harmful chemicals into the air.

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The installation of new pollution controls at the Whiting, Indiana, BP refinery will reduce benzene and other harmful air pollutants, government officials said.

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BP agreed to pay a $40 million penalty and spend almost $200 million on environmental controls to settle government allegations that the company released excessive toxic chemicals at its Whiting, Indiana, oil refinery on Lake Michigan.

The installation of new pollution controls will reduce benzene and other harmful air pollutants, according to federal officials who had accused the Northwest Indiana operation of violating the Clean Air Act.

“This settlement will result in the reduction of hundreds of tons of harmful air pollution a year,” said Larry Starfield, acting assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of enforcement and compliance assurance.

The EPA cited the refinery in July 2020 and again in December 2021 for air pollution violations stemming from the release of benzene in wastewater and emissions of other toxic chemicals.

From 2018 through at least 2021, BP underreported the amount of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, it released and failed to take a number of procedures to control its release, the government said.

During one EPA inspection, shoddy maintenance was observed at the refinery, which led to “excess emissions of benzene and volatile organic compounds,” according to the government complaint. The “actions and omissions constitute the failure by BP to exercise good air pollution control practices.”

Federal officials said the settlement “sends an important message to the refining industry.”

BP said in a statement that, with the agreement, “we are committing to additional robust steps — including significant capital investments — to monitor and mitigate wastewater emissions” at Whiting.

While the fine and the new controls will cost the company millions of dollars, London-based BP is an international oil and gas giant that reported a profit of $28 billion last year.

Still, some advocates hope the size of the penalty does make a point.

“Monetary penalties have been ridiculously low, a bargain for them in the past and nowhere near commensurate with the record profits they’ve amassed and the harms they’ve caused,” said Ashley Williams, executive director of Just Transition Northwest Indiana in Michigan City.

“We’re hoping a fine of this magnitude sends a strong message to BP, a serial polluter scofflaw,” she added.

In September, BP settled a separate lawsuit with environmental groups who sued over particle pollution from the Whiting operation, agreeing to pay $2.75 million.

That settlement followed another in late 2021 in which BP agreed to pay $500,000 for a similar issue.

In each settlement, BP usually is also asked to make some additional commitments to benefit surrounding communities.

In the latest settlement, BP agreed to spend $5 million for a program that aims to reduce diesel emissions in nearby communities. The refinery is also required to add 10 air pollution monitoring stations around its site to monitor pollution that spreads outside its 1,400 acres.

The government’s agreement with BP, filed in federal court in Hammond, Indiana, will be subject to public comment and will have to be approved by a judge.

The Whiting operation has been running since 1889, initially opened by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co.

Just a little more than 5 miles from the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge, the BP facility is the largest oil refinery in the Midwest. It processes about 440,000 barrels of oil a day to produce gas and other fuels, according to the company.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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