IDEM monitoring BP Whiting refinery after two separate tank leaks

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is monitoring the situation at BP’s refinery in Whiting after two separate tank leaks spread a chemical odor across nearby communities in Indiana and Illinois, the agency told the Post-Tribune on Thursday.

On the afternoon of Jan. 18, a storage tank at the refinery’s tank field began leaking, according to a company spokesperson. The leak was stopped early the following day and was kept within a secondary containment area surrounding the tank.

IDEM Spokesman Barry Sneed wrote in an email that a recent cold snap may have caused a valve to freeze and crack, resulting in a spill of dirty gas oil that gave off benzene and hydrogen sulfide vapors. The latter chemical is known for its characteristic “rotten egg” odor.

Residents of nearby communities in Indiana and Illinois — including Crete, Steger, Tinley Park, Oak Forest and Posen — have contacted 911 in recent days to complain of an odor they described as strong and gas-like.

“IDEM assisted facility personnel and their contractor in coordinating containment measures,” Sneed wrote. “No bodies of water have been impacted.”

On Tuesday, BP notified IDEM of another leak. Sneed wrote that “a localized equipment failure” caused a release of propane from a separate tank and resulted in hydrogen sulfide vapor entering the atmosphere.

“BP has notified IDEM that the failed unit was removed from service,” Sneed added. “As part of their permit with IDEM, BP is required to report emissions that deviate from the emission standards of the Clean Air Act. IDEM will subsequently review reports and take appropriate enforcement action in the case of any violations.”

A BP spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about either leak.

News of the first leak, which was first reported by news media on Wednesday, prompted expressions of frustration from local environmental advocates.

Carolyn Marsh, a longtime BP critic and administrator of the Facebook group BP Whiting Watch, told the Post-Tribune that she is “totally dissatisfied” with what she sees as a lack of transparency on the company’s part.

“It’s BP who failed to alert the community,” she said, “which is their practice, never to alert the community about any of their mishaps over there.”

Marsh said that the city of Whiting, which, according to its Mayor, learned of the first leak from BP within 24 hours of the incident, should have publicized the information immediately for the benefit of residents.

Susan Thomas, Director of Legislation and Policy at Just Transition Northwest Indiana, criticized BP and IDEM in a statement released Thursday morning.

“Whiting and the surrounding communities are left yet again to fend for themselves to determine exactly what is in this latest far-reaching toxic stink caused by industry malfunction and malfeasance,” she wrote. “Once again, IDEM has allowed industry to set the rules while they look the other way on oversight, enforcement, and transparency long owed to this region.”

Both benzene and hydrogen sulfide are highly toxic. Exposure to high levels of atmospheric benzene can result in dizziness, headaches, tremors, or unconsciousness and can even be fatal at extremely high concentrations, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Benzene has also been identified as a carcinogen, capable of causing leukemia after long-term exposure to high concentrations.

The adverse health effects of airborne exposure to hydrogen sulfide depend on how much of the chemical is inhaled and how long exposure lasts. At low concentrations, according to the CDC, hydrogen sulfide exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Higher levels of exposure can cause more severe symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to shock and convulsions. Like benzene, hydrogen sulfide can be fatal in very high concentrations.

The past week’s leaks echo another incident at BP’s refinery in Whiting from seven months ago. In June, a severe storm caused a partial power outage at the facility, resulting in an unplanned release of gasses including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that spread a similar odor across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

The refinery’s IDEM-issued air permit is currently up for renewal. The agency will hold a public comment meeting regarding the facility’s permit renewal request at 6 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the East Chicago High School.