This week, folks who live near Lake Michigan got a small taste of what it’s been like to be a resident of the Gulf Coast in recent years:
A leak at a BP refinery has spilled an unknown amount of oil into Lake Michigan in Indiana, with the Coast Guard on Wednesday estimating that at least nine to 18 barrels (378 to 756 gallons) of oil were spilled.
The spill occurred Monday afternoon after a malfunction at the facility, which began processing Canadian tar sands oil less than a year ago. The amount of oil spilled is based on an initial visual estimate and may change, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said.
An area of about 5,000 square yards of water was coated in an oily sheen and oil slicks could be seen on the shore and rocks, BP said in an initial report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“The malfunction occurred at the refinery’s largest crude distillation unit, the centerpiece of a nearly $4 billion overhaul that allowed BP to process more heavy Canadian oil from the tar sands region of Alberta,” the Chicago Times reported. “The unit … performs one of the first steps in the refining of crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.”
Cleanup efforts continued Wednesday as crews vacuumed up 5,200 gallons of oily water from the area, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said.
While I’m sure that it’s tempting for some to dismiss this as a tiny hiccup, I see this as a cause for alarm, for several reasons. First of all, we know from our experience dealing with both BP and the Coast Guard here in Louisiana after the Deepwater Horizon spill that official estimates of these events tend to be grossly underestimated. The past is prologue — and we just can’t trust their numbers.
But I have much deeper concerns. One is the culture of competence — or rather, incompetence — at BP. As news accounts note, the oil giant had only begun one year ago processing heavy, thick Canadian tar sands oil at its facility near Chicago, and here we have a major mishap. Has BP learned nothing since 2010? Where are the new standards of safety? This comes as the government has lifted a ban on new offshore leases for BP in the Gulf, which will greatly increase its drilling activities in the same area where it spilled a mind-boggling 5 million barrels of crude four years ago this spring.
And of course, it’s not just BP. Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented array of schemes to ship this heavy tar sands oil from Alberta across the United States, on trains or via pipelines, to refine but frequently to ship overseas on the lucrative export market. More and more U.S. citizens are being exposed to the current oil boom — and the risks of an accident. As Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defence Council said this week of the Lake Michigan spill: ” “They are about immediate impacts people are starting to see in their homes, families and neighborhoods: polluted waters; mounds of solid waste; risky transportation schemes that bring filth, explosions, pollution and destruction to our homes, waters and air in the form of oil trains and leaky pipelines.”
These “small” oil spills are more than just a nuisance. They cause real harm — and they’re also a wake-up call to the greater risks.
Read more about BP’s Lake Michigan spill from Al Jazeera America: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/3/26/coast-guard-bp-refineryspilled918barrelsintolakemichigan.html
Check out the statement from the Natural Resources Defense Council: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/hhenderson/bps_lake_michigan_oil_spill_mo.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+switchboard_all+%28Switchboard%3A+Blogs+from+NRDC%27s+Environmental+Experts%29
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