The BP oil spill into Lake Michigan earlier this year was “a shot over the bow,” jolting Illinois officials to consider the prospect of future industrial accidents and the threat to drinking water.
That’s according to an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency official who warned his colleagues in an email shortly after the March 25 spill that communication and coordination were not good following the incident in northwest Indiana. U.S. and Indiana officials who went to the site of the spill apparently never contacted key Illinois authorities to give an all clear on drinking water safety. Had the accident been worse, the government folks responsible for protecting the public’s drinking water may have been slow to prevent oil from contaminating water supplies, according to the March 28 email, obtained by the BGA.
“We may have dodged a bullet because we did not have a check and double check on this incident from the drinking water program perspective,” public water supply manager Dave McMillan wrote in an email to Illinois EPA colleagues.
RELATED STORY: Oil And Water
BP has a history of environmental violations at its refinery on Lake Michigan but wasn’t penalized by regulators. A recent oil spill raises new questions about oversight – and drinking water safety.
McMillan described in his memo a breakdown in communication among government agencies, including Indiana’s environmental regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These agencies didn’t alert key Illinois officials to let them know whether drinking water was potentially contaminated, he said.
In the end, officials who oversee Chicago and other water systems tested and determined that drinking water supplies were not affected by the spill, McMillan said. The drinking water intake in Hammond, Ind., which provides water to hundreds of thousands of people, however, “was pretty darned close to the incident,” McMillan noted. As much as 1,600 gallons of oil were accidentally dumped into Lake Michigan from the BP refinery located on the shoreline in Whiting, Ind. It remains unclear whether the spill was caused by a mechanical glitch, human error or something else.
“Potential impacts to sources of drinking water were never really addressed (let alone addressed in a timely fashion),” McMillan said in his email.
McMillan, whose job is to help oversee public water supplies, told us in an interview that the communication breakdown was important because there has to be a fine-tuned, well-executed plan to quickly communicate with Chicago and other cities that draw drinking water from Lake Michigan.
“In this particular instance, I think we have found a chink in our armor with respect to our check and double check system for water supplies,” McMillan wrote in his March email. “As we have discussed many times, when it comes to water systems we can’t afford for something to fall through the cracks.”
“Ask West Virginia!” he added, referring to the chemical spill in that state earlier this year that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people.
Indiana officials downplayed an interagency rift. An Indiana environmental official responded to McMillan’s criticism in an email to his own colleagues and an Illinois official on March 28.
“Had this been a more serious release that threatened Illinois drinking water intakes, I am quite certain the proper notifications would have been made in an immediate fashion,” Max Michael, an environmental emergency response official in Indiana, said in that follow-up email.
BP declined to comment.
The BGA obtained the McMillan and Michael emails from a source and confirmed their authenticity with the respective agencies.
“If there was any chance of oil getting anywhere near an Illinois water intake, we would obviously let them know,” a spokesman for Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management told us. Winds blowing inland and water conditions kept the spill contained, he added.
The U.S. EPA declined to comment when we reached out. Following the spill, U.S. EPA, in particular, “was not communicating very well internally,” McMillan said in his March email.
Coast Guard mulls $10,000 BP fine
The U.S. EPA and the Coast Guard were first on the scene after the Whiting oil spill, and those agencies have said BP may face a fine. The Coast Guard is considering a $10,000 fine, according to a spokesman.
That amount is only about a quarter of the maximum penalty allowed for the type of incident, Coast Guard officials told us. A spokesman said he couldn’t explain the rationale for the size of the penalty being considered but cautioned that it is only a “recommended” amount at this point. The investigation into the matter is still open, the spokesman said.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9033. His Twitter handle is @brettchase.