The Unseen Consequences of the BP Whiting Leak

Yesterday, Lauren posted a scathing report on our latest oil spill fiasco. Like she said, this one strikes us closer to home. It’s not just Louisiana this time though that is affected; I have no doubt that the citizens of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, even the rest of the bordering Great Lakes states are deeply perturbed. While differing in scale to say, the Deepwater Horizon spill, the circumstances of the Whiting leak are unique.

For frame of reference, the Macondo well spill into the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010 spewed somewhere between 3.26 to 4.9 million barrels of oil. The discrepancy of these numbers is so large because apparently, the government and BP offer two different estimations of how much oil spilled into the gulf (Both agreed however, that some 800,000 barrels collected during the cleanup would not be counted in that final tally).

The Whiting facility leaked about ten to twelve barrels. A very small, teeny tiny fraction of what it could and might have been. But this also happened in a lake, not a wide reaching ocean.

I mention this not to lessen the gravity of the situation, however. As Lauren also pointed out yesterday, The Great Lakes are sources of fresh water, and provide to millions of people surrounding the lakes. Even small amounts of oil leaking into these treasured resources can have dire, unforeseen consequences.

As it so happens, NPR wrote a report on the science of the Exxon Valdez disaster twenty-five years after the accident, coincidentally just days before the Whiting leak occurred (Lets also keep in mind that the Galveston event is still taking place and will have even worse consequences).

According to the article, Scientists have learned that there are smaller particles in oil called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH’s) are what cause long term damages to marine life. PAH’s are barely detectable, but their effects are more pronounced than the actual oil spill.

In tests done on pink salmon, they found that young fish, even embryos, were not able to swim nearly as fast for as long as the unaffected population. The PAH’s actually affect the development of the heart, which is one of the first things a fish embryo develops, and the researchers working on this believe that they interfere with the electrical signals that are needed for the heart to operate normally. It is a great article about some of the things we have learned about the long term, and even short term effects of oil spills, and I highly recommend giving it a read at the end of this article.

The effects on the pink salmon, among other things mentioned in the NPR article, should highlight the level of importance of this particular event.  This is our drinking water. If a pregnant woman ingests water tainted with PAH’s, then we don’t know what kind of effect that will have on a fetus. And if it does have an effect on one person, it will have an effect on the population, and that isn’t including any health issues a fully grown adult might develop. But this is why the Exxon Valdez research is so important, so that we can know what potentially we are looking at.

There is both bright side, and a concerning side. The bright side is that this spill was very minor in scale, and was contained quickly. But if even small dosages of PAH’s can affect the development of an embryo, then we do have something to concerned about. This is our largest supply of fresh water, and pollution of the Great Lakes is already a concern.

Between Fukushima having irradiated the ocean, Mocondo spilling into the gulf, Galveston in the works and the Whiting leak at our doorstep, have we begun to think about the consequences of how our society functions?





Close to Home – BP Spills Tar Sands into Lake Michigan

Urban Hermits - BP Oil Spill Lake Michigan

Just a few days ago, Urban Hermits wrote an article criticizing the fossil fuel industry. Well, unfortunately we have more content to write about on the topic. On Monday afternoon, it is estimated that the BP owned Whiting refinery in Indiana leaked between 630 to 1,638 gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan (originally thought to be 500 gallons). The refinery, now being used to process tar sands from Alberta, had increased volume of crude oil production which supposedly caused a malfunction. The Great Lake is part of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water, the drinking water source for 7 million people just in the Chicago area. Ironically, the incident occurred less than two weeks after the U.S. lifted BP’s ban on bidding Gulf of Mexico oil leases since the massive Macondo disaster in 2010.

The EPA initially reported there appeared to be no negative effects on Lake Michigan. Furthermore, BP spokesman Scott Dean stated “I’ve had no reports of any wildlife impacted.”


Just recently the refinery, BP, and Koch Industries were sued by Chicago residents due to the mass storage of petroleum coke polluting the area and lake. Petroleum coke, or “petcoke” is the byproduct of tar sand oil. The Whiting refinery currently produces around 600,000 tons of petcoke per year. It now has the potential to produce 2.2 million tons per year with the recent $3.8 billion expansion. According to the Chicago Tribune, federal records show that the Whiting plant remains one of the largest sources of industrial pollution discharged into Lake Michigan.

It seems to be nothing but bad news for crude oil, from processing to transport. Two weeks ago, a damaged tar sands pipeline owned by Sunoco spilled 20,000 gallons of crude oil into Ohio’s Glen Oak Nature Preserve.

The Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has admitted that they don’t have the resources needed to enforce standards on pipelines. Thus, corporations are responsible for routes and safety monitoring. Well, I for one am totally comfortable trusting that a large corporation isn’t going to cut corners… (sarcasm). If you would like to see stats, Kiley Kroh from ThinkProgress states,

According to an analysis of PHMSA data, since 1986 there have been nearly 8,000 significant pipeline incidents, resulting in more than 500 deaths, more than 2,300 injuries, and nearly $7 billion in damage.

Safe tar sands? Safe pipelines anyone?


Disaster after Disaster: Why I Can’t Trust the Fossil Fuel Industry


Fire rages at a well in Bobtown, PA

The topic of fossil fuel extraction is a difficult one. On one hand, we want to be as far from the site of extraction as possible. We want to avoid the smells, noise, sights, and potential toxicity of a industry that seems to roll out disaster after disaster. At the same time, we demand consistent access to these sources of fuel and are sometimes forced to rely on them despite any ethical objections. Furthermore, while most communities do not enjoy being near areas of fossil fuel development, it is hard for them to say no due to some of the short-term economic benefits for many residents. For example, in my current research in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s most active unconventional gas developments, residents have found new employment and income opportunities, especially those who have leased their mineral rights. People have used these funds to upgrade their farms, send children to college, and save for their future. While they might not be thrilled about some of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, it is hard to criticize them, especially if they previously were not affluent.

The term NIMBY, or “Not-in-my back yard”, was supposedly coined in the 1980s by British politician Nicholas Ridley ( Since then, natural resource researchers have begun using the term and developing theories, such as NIMBY syndrome, which refers to the, “[P]rotectionist attitudes of and oppositional tactics adopted by community groups facing an unwanted development in their neighborhood” (Dear 2007, p. 288). Even renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, bring up NIMBY concerns. Citizens have complained about the noise and obstructive view of wind turbines, as well as bat and bird mortality. While there definitely is a need to continue developing better renewable energy sources, we currently live in a world dominated by fossil fuels and will for at least the next couple of decades. Despite some benefits we experience from such development, it seems like the fossil fuel industry has evoked disaster after disaster, which is why I as well, wouldn’t want them in my backyard. Although some technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing, can theoretically have little impact, at least on the surface, mistakes and malfunctions inevitably occur. Now I will share a few recent examples of why fossil fuels have me sweating and hoping that they will stay as far away from my community as possible:

Earlier this year, a natural gas well exploded in the sleepy community of Bobtown, PA. It burned for 5 days released thick fumes and smoke into the air. The well operator Chevron’s response? Free pizza and pop!

In that same month (February) of this year, a large dike failure in North Carolina led to a massive coal ash spill, resulting in many concerning environmental impacts. Just this past week, reports have come out that the company, Duke Energy, was caught on camera intentionally spilling coal ash into nearby streams.

And of course, who could forget this year’s coal-related chemical spill in West Virginia, leaving nine counties without tap water.

Finally, the battle over the aftermath of the 2010 Kalamazoo river spill in my home state of Michigan, the largest inland oil spill in US history, continues. All in the light of proposed construction of more pipelines in both Michigan and across the United States, as well as shipping tar sands across Lake Superior, which I discussed in a post last year.

Obviously, there is a serious ethical issue here. That being how could I expect not to be impacted by fossil fuel development when I use them, thus impacting others. This is an important question to ask on both an individual and societal level, but is a complex question for another time. That being said, don’t forget to think about it, especially when you are reminded of tragedies similar to those above or just the everyday burdens of those experiencing, willingly or unwillingly, fossil fuel development in their communities.

Related Posts:


Dear, M. (1992). Understanding and Overcoming the NIMBY Syndrome. Journal of the American Planning Association, 58(3), 288–300. doi:10.1080/01944369208975808,0,7688341.story?page=1#axzz2wfM3UEdo