Argonne, Purdue consider BP pollution tech

May 10, 2011

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BP Whiting Refinery

Chicago-area scientists are laying out new technologies that they hope will keep additional pollution from a BP refinery out of Lake Michigan. The move comes while BP is undergoing a $4 billion expansion at its refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

The expansion, which is the largest private investment in the history of Indiana, is sixty percent complete. BP started the project in 2008 and expects to finish next year.

The expansion and modernization of the century-old plant will allow the refinery to process more of particular kind of crude oil that originates from Canadian tar sands. Environmental experts consider this crude to be a heavy, dirty variety of crude oil.

About ten percent of the lakefront refinery’s raw material currently originates from Canadian tar sands.

The expansion has brought fears that the dirtier raw crude will lead to more pollutants, such as mercury, getting dumped into the lake. BP hopes scientists can prevent that.

Today, a team from Argonne National Laboratory issued a report on technology that might help out.

M. Cristina Negri, the co-leader on the Argonne team, says progress is being made on three new approaches to filter mercury. 

“Work still needs to be done. We work basically in a small jar type of container. We need to go to full scale and that’s a lot of work,” Negri said. “But, the bottom line is that there’s hope that Lake Michigan water will have a technical way to be cleaned for us." 

Purdue University Calumet’s Water Institute is also a partner in the study, which is funded through a $5 million grant from BP.

“Our research teams have conducted more than 30 bench-scale treatability studies in seven technology categories,” says George Nnanna, director of the Water Institute. “This is in an effort to minimize the discharge of heavy metals into the Great Lakes.”

Three technologies, including one used at the refinery already, will get further study.

BP spokesman Scott Dean says the technologies will not only aid the company, but other entities -- companies and municipalities -- that discharge pollution into the lake.

BP came under heavy fire in 2007 after it announced it was expanding the Whiting Refinery, especially after it revealed that the refinery will likely discharge much more pollution after the expansion than it does now.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) issued a permit for the higher discharge amounts, but a public outcry forced BP to commit to abide by its current discharge limits. IDEM’s permit to allow higher discharges, however, is still in affect.