Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday April 17th, 2014, 7:29pm

Schneider, Enviros Discuss Lake Michigan Oil Spill; Great Lakes Infrastructure Initiatives

In the wake of the BP oil spill in Lake Michigan, U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL,10) met with local elected officials and environmental leaders in Highland Park to discuss ways to better protect and revitalize the Great Lakes region.

"Our needs are really very basic," Highland Park Mayor Nancy Roterin told the congressman on Thursday. "Keep our water clean and help us improve access to the beaches. [And] whatever you can to do to prevent these oil spills and the things like what happened at Whiting."

Back in March, BP's refinery in Whiting, Indiana malfunctioned, spilling an estimated 39 barrels of oil into Lake Michigan.

Immediately after the spill, Schneider and other Illinois congressional lawmakers requested a meeting with BP officials as well as a report from the company about the cause of the spill and what is being done to prevent similar incidents in the future. The legislators requested an analysis of the potential impact increased production at the refinery will have on Lake Michigan.

Schneider told Progress Illinois at Thursday's discussion that he and the other legislators have not heard back from BP, adding that they "will follow up." 

"I think it's important and right to expect that any energy company transporting [or] processing fossil fuels on the Great Lakes, or really anywhere for that matter, should have in place in advance of an accident their action plans for responding to an accident," Schneider said. "I want to know what those are, and I want to make sure that the Great Lakes are protected, not just from instances like this, but all threats of fossil fuels being transported or processed along the Great Lakes."

Henry Henderson, midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was one environmental expert at the discussion, held at Highland Park's city hall.

The vast majority of crude oil from tar sands development in Canada is coming to the Great Lakes region, he said. Some of the oil that spilled into Lake Michigan from BP's refinery, he said, was tar sands oil.

"We see a series of refineries being retooled in order to treat this very, very different oil," he said. "It is a very heavy oil ... and it produces a lot more waste, so it's one reason we have a huge amount of waste now all of a sudden appearing on the Southeast Side of Chicago." 

Henderson was referring to petroleum coke, or petcoke, which is a thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining that can pollute the air and water. The BP Whiting facility already produces approximately 700,000 tons of petcoke annually, and that amount is expected to triple to more than 2 million tons in the coming year due to an increased flow of oil from Canada and recent upgrades made at the refinery.

But the Whiting refinery is not the only facility to be worried about, Henderson stressed.

"You've got tar sands being refined in Joliet. You'e got it being refined in Wood River, Illinois," he said. "So you've got all of these refineries now changing in order to take in this very, very heavy crude. There are realities of it coming into old, antiquated pipelines, which have a tendency to burst ... It's a problem to our infrastructure, and it's a broad burden on our communities." 

Henderson added that the prospect of shipping tar sands on the Great Lakes is concerning.

"We are an epicenter of where the burden falls, and if you're going to now expand where the burden falls by having this shipped through the Great Lakes, where if it falls, it's going to contaminate this water," he told Progress Illinois. "This is not a zero-sum gain. It is not in our interest to have that happen, so I'm hoping (Schneider) will be, as he indicates he will be, the voice of saying, 'Let's actually look at the real economics here, where the burden falls and where the benefit is.'" 

Todd Main with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Commission noted that the region currently has an underused marine transportation system. If utilized appropriately, it could be a big help in curbing increased traffic congestion on roads and railways.

"Putting things that are appropriate on a maritime system is the most environmentally sound way," he said. "We think we need to put some energy and time and thought into thinking about what can we do to facilitate that ... We don't want to get into a situation where we're transporting unsafe materials and putting at risk what is our greatest treasure. But at the same time, the economy in the Great Lakes region is built on maritime transportation."

Main said the region should begin to have a larger discussion about a Great Lakes infrastructure initiative that would focus on connecting existing transportation systems to maritime systems. 

For his part, Schneider said he would study the idea and look for partners in Congress who represent the Great Lakes region.

"We do need to rethink our infrastructure, a modern infrastructure ... to grow the economy, but we have to think about what we ship and transport," Schneider stressed. 

Those at the discussion said the Great Lakes region also needs to form a stronger regional identity.

"What is common to all the Great Lakes is that, because we're all connected, once (a) problem ... leaves one community, it becomes everyone's problem," said Joel Braimeier, president of Alliance for the Great Lakes. "If there's a contaminated harbor in Waukegan, it hurts people in Ohio. If there are Asian carp swimming through the Illinois River, it's going to eventually hurt people in Michigan. We've got to solve those problems for the good of the Great Lakes."

Schneider said his first order of business is to keep the conversation going about bringing more unity across the Great Lakes region.

"You've heard the sense that this is a regional issue," he said. "There are opportunities, but we need to think forward and rethink what the needs are of the Great Lakes region in the 21st Century."

AP Photo/The Times, Kyle Telechan

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