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Activists question Indiana’s revised water rules

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Environmentalists who raised an uproar two years ago over a permit allowing BP’s oil refinery along Lake Michigan to increase its pollution discharges are now questioning the state’s approach to revising water rules that played a role in that controversy.

Representatives from industries, municipalities and environmental groups are working with Indiana’s environmental agency to clarify the state’s so-called “anti-degradation” rules.

But problems with those rules pointed out in an independent report of the BP controversy still have not been resolved, and some activists are upset by some of the changes, said Brad Klein, an environmentalist who sits on that panel.

“I’m really concerned, based on the history in Indiana, that as the rules exist now, BP could happen again,” Klein, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, told the Post-Tribune of Merrillville.

In June 2007, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued a new wastewater permit for BP’s $3.8 billion expansion of its Whiting oil refinery. That permit angered environmentalists because it allows the refinery about 20 miles southeast of Chicago to increase its discharges of ammonia and pollution called suspended solids into Lake Michigan.

BP later announced that it would find ways to keep the expanded refinery’s discharges to the limits set under its previous water permit.

In late 2007, an independent report by Indiana University professor Jim Barnes concluded that unclear state laws on when, and by how much, a facility can increase its discharges into the lake led to the uproar over the permit.

Indiana’s current water quality rules don’t allow new or increased discharges into Lake Michigan of chemicals like mercury that accumulate in fish and people who eat fish from the lake.

But facilities may be allowed new or increased discharges of other, less toxic, pollutants if a plant demonstrates the increased discharge is necessary.

Plants can conduct an anti-degradation analysis showing that alternatives to the increase have been evaluated and the increase is necessary to provide social and economic benefits.

But the new rules being drafted by the stakeholder panel, which meets again Tuesday in Indianapolis, also propose setting an “insignificance” level under which plants would not need to prove the increased pollution is necessary.

For Lake Michigan, that level is proposed to be 1 percent to 2 percent of the total amount of each pollutant the lake can accept while still allowing people to fish, swim and use its waters for drinking water.

Environmentalists worry the lake’s “insignificance” level would lead to an enormous amount of pollution under the draft rules.

“The loading capacity of Lake Michigan is huge compared to other waters in Indiana,” said Lyman Welch of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes. “You can’t base the amount of pollution that you can add to Lake Michigan based on the capacity of the entire lake.”

Albert Ettinger, attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said environmentalists have argued that no increases in pollution should be allowed in Lake Michigan above the concentration that’s already in the water.

Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokeswoman Amy Hartsock said an underlying principle of anti-degradation is that water quality may be lowered when it is determined “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area in which the waters are located.”

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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