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A ‘Toxic Tour’ of the Whiting Refinery on the Shores of Lake Michigan

A ‘Toxic Tour’ of the Whiting Refinery on the Shores of Lake Michigan

This is part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here: The Oil Pipelines Putting the Great Lakes at Risk

By Ryan Schnurr

One Saturday in June, I drove around the southern edge of Lake Michigan with Thomas Frank, an activist from East Chicago, Indiana, looking for oil.

We had met a few weeks previous, at a conference put on by the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Thomas was on a panel about oil pipelines. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Calumet Lives Matter,” Thomas had mentioned that one of the largest oil refineries in the country, the Whiting Refinery, sits within the Chicago metro area, on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Calumet region of Indiana.

After the panel I went up and introduced myself. I said I was interested in the Whiting Refinery, and asked if he’d be willing to talk with me more about it. He said, “First I’d like to give you one of my Toxic Tours,” and pulled out a card with his contact information. Three weeks later, here we were.

I’d like to give you
one of my Toxic Tours.

The average Toxic Tour is about two hours in length, but can run longer. Tours are customized to attendee interests (would you like to see a lead Superfund site, or an oil spill? How about a sewage overflow?). Most of the time, Thomas conducts the tours from the driver’s seat of his bright blue Honda CR-V, model year late 90s. If the group is big enough, he rents a bus. Toxic Tour attendees have included university administrators, political leaders, and, recently, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 (encompassing Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and the jurisdictions of 35 Native tribes), Robert Kaplan.

The Whiting Refinery, owned and operated by the oil giant BP, is a regular stop. So are the fields of terminals that occupy the landscapes of Whiting and nearby East Chicago. Terminals store petroleum in round white tanks that look like compressed marshmallows. Refineries are where crude oil goes to become presentable. They churn out gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, kerosene, and sundry other petro-products to be spread around the hemisphere, and waste byproducts to be deposited in their immediate vicinity — which in the case of the Whiting Refinery includes the northwest corner of Indiana, the south side of Chicago, and Lake Michigan.

Thomas Frank, barreling his CR-V over the crest of a Calumet bridge, pumped his brakes. He gestured across the vehicle at an immense iron structure with three lattice towers climbing the sky. “See that? That’s a coking unit out there with all the conveyor belts coming off of it.” A soft-spoken white man of medium build, he wore silver wire-rimmed glasses, a short grey-brown beard, and greying brown hair swept back into a ponytail. “This is all refinery, all BP around here. The whole thing looks like one chemistry experiment after another, just pipes and chaos almost.”

We drifted for a moment, eye level with the Whiting Refinery, then gassed over the rest of the bridge.

A portion of the Whiting Refinery. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

* * *

Ten years ago, Thomas Frank was hired as director of the East Chicago Waterway Management District in East Chicago, Indiana. Part of his job was to manage the Indiana Harbor and Shipping Canal, which together slit the peninsular coastline of East Chicago in the shape of a hockey stick. They were cut in the first decade of the twentieth century by the Inland Steel Company (now U.S. Steel) to connect Lake Michigan to the ports of industry and the Grand Calumet River. The canal filled continually with silt and byproduct, and had been doing so for a century. Its bed was a sludgy mix of heavy metals, grease and oil. It hadn’t been dredged in thirty years. A coat of leaked oil smeared across the water’s surface. Thomas was tasked with dredging material from the canal and constructing a Confined Waste Disposal Facility to store it.

In 2007, BP announced that it would invest $3.8 billion in the Whiting Refinery. The proposed adjustments would outfit the facility to process Canadian tar sands oil piped across the continent from Edmonton, Alberta. A side effect of the expansion was that the refinery’s operations would lurch west, across the municipal boundary into East Chicago. “When BP announced its project I kind of came out against it,” Thomas said. One of his major objections to the expansion had to do with the influx of heavy tar sands crude.

Raw tar sands product has to be strip mined, or pumped out of the earth with steam and pressurized chemicals in a process called SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage). Bitumen — a bundle of extremely heavy hydrocarbons — is separated from other elements like sand, clay, and water in a centrifuge, then diluted with natural gas condensate or other light hydrocarbons and piped through the earth to refineries.

Oil is extracted from bitumen in a process called coking, which occurs in a coking unit, AKA coker. A regular byproduct of coking is petroleum coke — “petcoke” for short. Petcoke is 90 percent carbon; it’s like coal in that way and others. Petcoke dust can catch in water and blow around in the air. If inhaled, it can affect the healthy functioning of lungs and hearts.

The canal filled continually with silt and byproduct, and had been doing so for a century. Its bed was a sludgy mix of heavy metals, grease and oil.

According to the government of Alberta, the province’s tar sands are pregnant with more than 165 billion potential barrels of oil. To produce a single barrel of crude oil you need at least two tons of oil sands. Processing oil sands uses three times as much water as conventional crude, and yields 8 to 24 times more carbon. John Abraham, a mechanical engineer at the University of Saint Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has estimated that burning up all the Alberta tar sands oil would by itself increase the world’s temperature by 0.4 degrees Celsius.

“I wrote a White Paper and presented it,” Thomas told me. “I said, ‘If this is going to happen, maybe we need to get something out of it. Maybe for every dollar they spend on fossil fuels, they’re required to spend twenty-five, fifty cents on alternative energy.’ At that time, BP was one of the largest investors in alternative energy. But it was like I stood in front of a train, and the train just plowed me over.”

According to Thomas, the prevailing sentiment, even among environmental groups, was that a tar sands expansion was a positive step for the community. It represented the largest single private investment in Indiana history. The new facility would hire for 80 new jobs, plus construction work in the meantime. Thomas told me that after presenting his paper, he was fired from his position at the Waterway Management District. He decided to devote himself to activism, especially the environmental justice movement, speaking and organizing as an ally of the Great Lakes.

Between 2008 and 2013, BP pumped $4.2 billion into the Whiting Refinery. It is now the largest refinery of tar sands oil in the United States. Its footprint is 1,400 acres large. Pipelines and railroads converge upon the refinery, which processes up to 430,000 barrels of crude per day. According to BP, it “can produce enough gasoline each day to fuel 6 million cars” (what kind and for how long are left unspecified).

* * *

Thomas piloted the CR-V down a dusty bylane. A sign claimed the property on either side of the lane for BP. “This is a public access road, but nobody will tell you that,” Thomas said. “They’ll probably get it changed because they don’t want people down here. But there’s a public access beach at the end, and that’s where we’re going.”

Arriving, we climbed down four-foot boulders onto a narrow beach, 20 or 25 feet in length. It was on the edge of a long cove, across which the materials of industry stood stark. The beach itself was ringed in dark rocks that ranged in size and shape from mini-fridge to commercial freezer; they looked nearly igneous, but weren’t. “You see how they just throw the slag off?” Thomas said (they being U.S. Steel, slag being a stony byproduct of iron smelting). “Everything’s built on top of slag here.”

The air smelled distinctly of sulfur. Clumps of dark algae had washed up onto the beach. Tiny metallic flecks mingled with sand and stone, and oil plumed across the water. Thomas lifted his phone and snapped a picture.

* * *

The story of oil in the history of the United States generally, and in the history of the Calumet region specifically, really takes off with Standard Oil.

People started mining oil seriously in 1859. In 1863, John D. Rockefeller, a successful businessman with money lying around, began investing in a small refinery in Cleveland which soon became a big refinery. By 1865 he was in oil full time. Then he started a second refinery with a different set of partners. He consolidated his holdings and partners into the Standard Oil Company in 1870. By 1872, Rockefeller’s company ran every refinery in the city. By 1879, it controlled 90 percent of the refineries in the country.

Probably the best book on Standard Oil, and certainly the most iconic, is Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company. Really, it’s an expose of Rockefeller. Tarbell argued that Rockefeller was a dealmaker who managed transportation systems to his advantage, sometimes unethically. She attributed his early success to preferential rebates he had negotiated with railroads. When pipelines came along, at first Rockefeller resisted. He had an interest in keeping oil moving via rail. But when the first long-distance pipeline, the Tidewater, was completed, Rockefeller saw the future and began assembling his own pipeline web. To maintain his company’s dominance of the industry, he gained control of the Tidewater in 1882.

The Indiana Shipping Canal. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

In 1882, Rockefeller’s holdings, which had grown beyond Standard Oil, were consolidated again into the Standard Oil Trust. For the next twenty years, Rockefeller ruled the oil industry. The Trust was a banner organization that controlled dozens of individual companies. At one point, forty different corporations were involved. The whole enterprise was complicated. The Standard Oil Trust’s influence was distributed and difficult to trace. In The History of the Standard Oil Company, Tarbell wrote that “You could argue its existence from its effects, but you could not prove it.”

Tarbell’s book came out in 1904. Two years later, Standard Oil was sued by the government of the United States for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The suit claimed that Standard Oil’s combination of businesses represented “unification of power and control over a commodity.” The court agreed. In 1911, the Standard Oil Trust was dissolved.

Meanwhile, in the late 1880s, Standard Oil had reached west. The company was collecting oil from fields in Ohio, and, in the interest of expansion, had aimed a pipeline at Chicago, bypassing Cleveland and effectively ending that city’s tenure as a nucleus of oil refining. The new line stopped just short of Chicago proper. Standard Oil built a refinery at its terminus in 1889, on the southern shores of Lake Michigan: the Standard Oil Whiting Refinery.

* * *

Thomas Frank and I ricocheted all over Whiting and East Chicago, talking continuously. Thomas has tremendous knowledge of environmental threats facing the Calumet region, and almost no regard for stop signs; approaching one, he would coast briefly about ten feet back, look both ways, then accelerate through. Periodically, he would announce that we had crossed from East Chicago into Whiting, or vice versa.

In 1889, when Standard Oil moved in, Whiting was unincorporated territory. The lakefront was mainly marsh and dune, habitat for hundreds of species of plant and animal. Standard Oil bought 300 acres and rearranged. It leveled dunes and filled in marsh. During construction, workers used boats to move around. Then engineers built a sewer system and lowered the water table. The sewer system, which served both the refinery and the emergent town of Whiting, fed into a long underground tunnel, five feet across, that carried wastewater half a mile out into Lake Michigan and loosed it to the current.

Whiting incorporated in 1895, at the urging of Standard Oil. In 1961, Standard Oil became Amoco, which merged with BP in 2000. Contemporary Whiting is a community of about 5,000 people, and covers a little more than three square miles of land. Many things in Whiting are named for oil or Standard Oil. There are streets called Standard Avenue and Stewart Avenue (Stewart being a former board chairman for Standard Oil). A baseball club, the Northwest Indiana Oilmen, plays its games at Oil City Stadium, on land donated to the city by Standard Oil. Whiting High School sports teams wear jerseys identifying them as the “Oilers,” and the superintendent’s monthly newsletters are called the “Oiler Spill.” Relatedly, a Whiting microbrewery produces an “Industrial Harbor IPA.”

“What they don’t have is an ‘EPA Cleanup,’” Thomas said.

East Chicago is larger than Whiting, about 16 miles square, and zoned almost 80 percent industrial. It has boasted of being the most industrialized community in the world. Only 17 percent of East Chicago is residential. East Chicago is historically a steel town, but oil has always been involved; it’s arguable whether steel would have come to East Chicago if it hadn’t been for Standard Oil. When Inland Steel established itself on the coast it ran almost exclusively on petroleum from the Standard Oil Whiting Refinery. There was an underground pipeline that conveyed 50,000 gallons per week directly.

By the early twentieth century, half a dozen refineries operated in the Calumet area. The Northwest Indiana Times has called it the “one-time oil capital of [the] nation.” Production was around 130,000 barrels per day. Storage tanks were brick with wood bottoms. Sometimes they were overfilled. Oil leaked. Some of it was recovered, but a lot of it soaked into the ground. Eventually the construction of tanks improved, but spills were not eradicated entirely.

In 1991, some people in East Chicago noticed oil seeping into their basements. Upon investigation, an estimated 400,000 barrels of oil — 16.8 million gallons — were discovered on the water table. This great subterranean oil slick was near the Whiting Refinery, then operated by Amoco. The company publicly acknowledged its influence on the spill. It’s likely oil had been accumulating for a century. Thomas told me the plume is still there, and referenced maps by the U.S. Geological Survey to this effect. “Because we’re a wetlands, dunes and swale, the water table is basically at the ground level,” he said. “Where that 16.8 million gallons has been spilled, that’s right below the surface of the ground.

“And remember,” he added. “This is all happening in one of the most biodiverse regions in the country.”

Upon investigation,
an estimated 400,000 barrels of oil — 16.8 million gallons —  were discovered on the water table.

You can get a sense of this diversity at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 20 miles east of Whiting. There are still dunes and marsh. There is also a public beach. I grew up in northeast Indiana, within striking distance of the lakeshore, and my family would visit occasionally — in Indiana, when people say they are going to the beach, there’s a good chance this is what they mean. Driving with Thomas through the ramble of industry along the Calumet coastline, a question appeared in my mind. “What do you think,” I asked. “Could you see all this from the Dunes?”

Thomas thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Maybe the peninsula, but the refinery is on the other side of that. You can see Chicago, yeah, but I don’t know about BP. No, I don’t think you can see it from there.”

We toured past BP and U.S. Steel (“you can thank them for the slag,” Thomas said); looked through the windshield at a second steel giant, ArcelorMittal (“this is probably the last view of nineteenth-century industry, right here”); got out and walked around the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, watched a couple of guys laying white booms on oily water; got back in the CR-V and continued through a polka-dot landscape of bright white terminals. Thomas ticked off the companies affiliated with each collection as we passed: “Wolverine, Exxon, Kinder Morgan, Valero, Marathon…”

Circling around, we stopped beside a wide ditch. Brown-stained booms lay across the water, which glistened a rainbow of oil. The ditch sat between the Gary/Chicago International Airport and the Grand Calumet River. The oil, Thomas told me, was the result of a five-year-old airport expansion. “This whole area had a bunch of old legacy pipelines and stuff like that,” he said. “And when they built the runway they broke through some old pipelines…so this is just the accumulation of it coming to this ditch.” He waved his hand toward a row of colored rods, pipeline markers sticking out of the ground. “You see a bunch of pipelines here.”

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation sometimes referred to as PHMSA (pronounced “pimsa”) — maintains a National Pipeline Mapping System. In Lake County, Indiana, which contains Whiting, East Chicago, and East Chicago’s neighbor to the east, Gary, the map shows a tangle of “Hazardous Liquid Pipelines” marked in red. There appear to be several smaller systems connecting terminals and refineries, plus a couple of major long-distance pipelines. One of these is BP1, which pipes in crude from the oil fields of Cushing, Oklahoma and dead-ends at the Whiting Refinery. The Enbridge network, too, makes an appearance — Line 6B runs through Lake County ten miles south of East Chicago.

To manage spills, companies have installed “block valves” at intervals on their pipelines. Thomas and I visited one, beneath an elevated stretch of State Road 912 in East Chicago, near the Grand Calumet River. The pipeline was grey and white, and looped out of the ground in a ten-foot stretch. Thomas said, “looks like a twenty-four inch.” In the middle was a rectangular box with a red crank wheel. It was protected by a chain-link fence and barbed-wire topping. A sign said, “BP Pipelines: White Oak and Toll Block Valve.” Another said, “WARNING: Petroleum Pipeline.” And another: “DANGER: No Smoking.” A pumping station used to be there, Thomas told me, but it had been moved further from the river. A dozen yards away, two more pipelines hunched into block valves of their own.

An oil slick coats a drainage ditch in East Chicago, Indiana. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

* * *

Resistance to oil production in the Calumet region has intensified since the tar sands expansion. Activists take issue with the Whiting Refinery because of its participation in an industrial oil economy, its proximity to Lake Michigan, and its byproducts. “What started to kick off a lot of the actions against them,” Thomas said, “was the piling up of petroleum coke.”

For a while, petcoke dust from the Whiting Refinery was shipped west, across the Illinois-Indiana border, to be piled in south side neighborhoods of Chicago. Wind lifted it off the open-air piles and distributed it across roads, homes and lawns. A few years ago, residents organized against the piles and won. In 2015, BP stopped shipping petcoke to Chicago, and started shipping it to a port in Newport News, on the coast of Virginia, and to a processing facility in Kentucky, near the Ohio River.

“Unlike NIMBY — are you familiar with NIMBY? Not In My Backyard? — we’re EJ, Environmental Justice,” Thomas said. “So we don’t just stop when we get it out of our community. If it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough for anybody.”

“…we don’t just stop when we get it out of our community. If it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough for anybody.”

In May 2016, several hundred people gathered in Whiting’s Lakefront Park as part of a global campaign, “Break Free,” which advocated for a “just transition to renewable energy.” The action began at 10 a.m. with a blessing of the water by Native leaders. Then the protestors marched to Gate 15 of the Whiting Refinery, a distance of about a mile. Outside the gate they sat in a circle and sang and chanted. They sang, “The people are going to rise like the water, let’s shut down BP now!” They chanted, “Love water not oil!” Forty-one people, including Thomas Frank, were arrested for trespassing.

The march on BP was led by Tara Houska, an Indigenous tribal rights attorney and member of the Couchiching First Nation. Houska is the national director of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental organization. Indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income neighborhoods are at the forefront of sovereignty and environmental justice conflicts out of necessity. Marginalized populations experience a disproportionate amount of the effects of pollution and disaster. In environmental justice groups, those at greatest risk are known collectively as “frontline communities.”

East Chicago is a frontline community. Most of its residents are black or hispanic, and a third live below the poverty line. The city has been in the news for its 79-acre USS Lead Superfund site, which was named one of the most contaminated places in the country. In East Chicago, lead, like oil, lurks in the ground. To address this problem, workers are replacing the top two feet of the Superfund site. They are digging up the contaminated soil and taking it to a landfill, then putting down other dirt that is uncontaminated. But they can only do this on the surface. Lead-contaminated soil that is beneath sidewalks, parking lots, and buildings has to stay.

In April, the Northwest Indiana Times published a story about lead in East Chicago. It addressed the Superfund site, as well as the presence of lead in drinking water (East Chicago, like Flint, Michigan, has an aging water line system consisting of lead pipes). The story quoted Thomas Frank — he had told the Times that, when he initially moved to East Chicago, “It was one story after another of uncovering these toxic secrets that had been kind of laying just below the surface.”

* * *

There are 12 oil refineries in the Great Lakes basin, 25 in the region. All of them are privately owned. According to the Freshwater Lab, pipelines operated by private corporations “touch and convey refinery waste into Lake Superior at Superior, Wisconsin; Lake Michigan at Whiting, Indiana; Lake Huron at Detroit, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario; Lake Erie at the Nanticoke Refinery in Ontario.” Other places, pipelines and railroads carrying diluted tar sands oil traverse rivers, lakes, and wetlands. In 2013, Calumet Specialty Products Partners, an Indiana-based company, proposed to ship crude oil on barges across Lake Superior.

In March 2014, soon after the augmented Whiting Refinery went back online, oil got into cooling water tanks and was released into Lake Michigan. As oil spills go, it was a fairly small event — about 39 barrels. Crews gathered 5,200 gallons of oily water. The Coast Guard and EPA were both involved; there was a “sheen” across the surface, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Two years later, BP paid $275,000 “to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.” Around the same time, “operational issues” at the refinery caused 26,621 pounds of “suspended solids” — industrial waste — to enter Lake Michigan, an amount five times greater than its allowed discharge of 5,694 pounds per day.

On the list of high-profile human-made disasters, the Whiting Refinery does not register. You won’t find it exploding into national headlines suddenly and dramatically. Its influence is an accumulating contamination on the order of a slow leak. For the most part, that’s how events have unfolded in the Calumet region — the southern shore of Lake Michigan transformed over time, a bit at a time, into one of the most industrialized and toxic communities in the country. But the transformation has not yet finished. The Whiting Refinery clamors on — power and history, pipes and chaos.

Leaving East Chicago, I got into my car and drove east toward the Indiana Dunes. I couldn’t shake the image of this enormous tar sands refinery sitting on the edge of the Great Lakes. Running on refined petroleum — Shell Oil Co. — I thought about a conversation I’d had a month previous with Dr. Rachel Havrelock of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The history of the twentieth-century nation-state is also a history of oil,” Dr. Havrelock told me. “And along with that we’ve highly valued territory and real estate. But we haven’t yet seen this other possibility — what if the element at the center of social organization is water, which is held in common, and is necessary for human life itself?”

I pulled into the parking lot of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, took off my shoes, and walked onto the beach. It was a warm day in June, and there were a lot of people around, playing Frisbee and laying on towels. I went out to the edge of the tide and squinted west across the water. Clouds were gathering on the horizon. I ran my gaze along the shoreline. Pausing on the cusp of visibility, I thought maybe I could just make out the latticed towers of the petroleum coker. Then I blinked, and it was gone. At my feet, Lake Michigan lapped against the beach.

____
Cover image: a petroleum coker at the Whiting Refinery. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

Ryan Schnurr is a writer from northeast Indiana. His first book, In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River, is forthcoming from Belt Publishing in October 2017.

 

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