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‘That’s not our jurisdiction’: Illinois counties wash their hands of water pollution concerns

Oil refineries are dumping metal pollutants into Illinois waters - and local authorities say they're powerless to stop them.

CHICAGO (CN) - There's nickel, lead and selenium in Illinois waters.

In high enough quantities any of these metals can have devastating effects on human health, to say nothing of the local environment. Unfortunately for Illinois, four local oil refineries, named in a late January environmental report as among the top ten worst water polluters in the country, are responsible for discharging large amounts of these metals into the state's rivers and lakes.

There's the Exxon Mobil Joliet oil refinery, located about 55 miles southwest of Chicago in suburban Will County. The January environmental report, called "Oil's Unchecked Outfalls" and released by the non-profit Environmental Integrity Project, names it as America's 9th largest selenium polluter by volume of wastewater discharge. A Citgo refinery only 30 miles away earned high marks for discharges of selenium and excess nitrogen, as did a BP refinery, located on the south shore of Lake Michigan on the Illinois-Indiana border. And the fourth plant, operated by Phillips 66 and positioned on the east bank of the Mississippi River directly across from St. Louis, was awarded the dubious honor of the nation's worst water polluter for nickel.

It was also almost tied with the Citgo refinery for selenium discharge.

The report found that together these refineries injected over 1.8 million pounds of dissolved metals into Illinois waterways in 2021 alone, with the Phillips 66 plant also discharging close to 69 million pounds of dissolved sulfates and chlorides. But despite the high levels of wastewater contamination, it's unlikely that any of the refineries' corporate owners will face consequences for their polluting any time soon, much less change how they operate.

How can they, when multiple state, county and municipal authorities say they have no power over the refineries' environmental impact?

"There's no real environmental regulations at the county level," said Mike Theodore, Director of Communications for the Will County Executive. "The county doesn't have any regulatory power there."

"We've never even been out there," confirmed Will County Media Services Manager Kevin Juday.

Theodore and Juday's claim was echoed by multiple other authorities Courthouse News reached out to, including mayors, representatives from state and county public health departments, and local public administrators. All said that authority over the offending refineries rested with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Problem is, the Illinois EPA isn't going to do anything about it either.

"With respect to Exxon Mobil’s Joliet refinery, Illinois EPA reviewed the... data carefully and further discussed with USEPA the nature and significance of the data," an IEPA spokesperson said in a prepared statement. "That review and follow up discussion... did not indicate enforcement since the data did not show exceedances of monthly averages."

The statement did not specify what "monthly averages" meant in terms of wastewater pollutant discharge. The IEPA did not respond to requests for clarification on this point. However, the same statement did make it clear that the agency is not overly concerned with selenium in the Chicagoland area's drinking water either.

"Illinois EPA’s review of the data for Chicago’s drinking water intakes shows that selenium levels were well below the applicable maximum contaminant level (also called MCL)," the statement read. "MCLs are the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water. From 2020 to present, none of the Illinois public water supplies that have drinking water intakes in Lake Michigan had any MCL exceedances."

The statement did not say what the "maximum contaminant level" for selenium actually is, though the federal EPA lists it as .05 milligrams of selenium per liter of water. The industry-wide average concentration of selenium in wastewater discharge, according to EIP's January report, is about 52 milligrams per liter.


The IEPA's non-committal stance did not sit well with Kimberly Gray, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Chicago's Northwest University. Gray has worked with legal firms for over two decades in advocating for low-income communities in Chicago that disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental injustice - such as the selenium generated by the nearby plant on the Indiana border.

"Just because a contaminant is at a low level doesn't mean it has no effect. That's a very empty excuse," Gray said, also noting that Lake Michigan's chemistry has already been altered significantly by pollutants.

The toothlessness of local authorities in dealing with water pollution, as well as the IEPA's unwillingness to pursue enforcement actions, is part of a larger trend of industrial deregulation that has steadily advanced in the US since the far-right Reagan administration. Most environmental standards for oil refineries have not been revised since 1985, despite an explicit goal of the 1972 Clean Water Act being "the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985."

"EPA’s national discharge limits for refineries apply to just ten pollutants, including ammonia, chromium, and oil and grease. These skeletal standards do not begin to address the variety and volume of dangerous contaminants found in the wastewater from refining processes," the January report concludes.

The report also lambasts the EPA for failing to revise the 1985 standards in 2021, when the agency published its 15th Preliminary Effluent Guidelines Program Plan. The plan "announce[d] no further action on oil and gas extraction wastewater management."

The EIP report said this decision was "based on a cursory, erroneous, and plainly inadequate analysis of the industry."

"I cannot tell you my level of disgust," Gray said in agreement. "The EPA is supposed to be the champion of people who need protection, and they're not."

Professor Jean-François Gaillard, Gray's colleague in the civil and environmental engineering school at Northwestern, also expressed exasperation at the lack of state control over these high-polluting private companies. The French-born professor said that the offending Illinois oil refineries would likely not be able to get away with discharging as much pollution, were they operating in the European Union.

"In Europe... they have to show that what they discharge into the environment does not harm aquatic life," Gaillard said. "The US has never really set this regulation in place."

Gaillard further detailed an EU regulatory structure known as REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals. Under REACH, the European Chemical Agency can restrict the use and sale of hazardous substances if their producer cannot identify and manage their risks.

"The regulations in Europe are much more restrictive... if there are violations, it makes it so you cannot buy products from this manufacturer," Gaillard said. "Most of the discussions about metal [in the US] is not going in the same direction as Europe."

The US' lack of regulations on the private sector goes even beyond the energy industry, with standards for food and pharmaceutical production being far more lax than most of the developed world.

As Germinal Organic - a company that produces foods for both the U.S. and European markets - put it, "in the United States, food additives are innocent until proven guilty, while in Europe, only those additives proven not to be harmful are approved for use."

What makes the lack of regulation on oil refineries so particularly worrying is that many of the metals discharged into Illinois waters are "bio-accumulative," according to Professor Kathryn Nagy, Department Head of Environmental Biogeochemisty at the University of Illinois - Chicago. This means that not only are people drinking in pollutants from their tap water, the dissolved metals are also absorbed in the different plants and animals people eat.

"Any organic matter that you can imagine, the metals tend to attach to the organic matter," Nagy said. "If we have too much of them, they start replacing metals that we need for our cellular processes."

Excessive selenium, for example, can replace the sulfur in a person's amino acids, disrupting normal cell function and potentially leading to disorders ranging from organ damage to various cancers.

Metal pollution from refineries is likely to continue for as long as gasoline remains a primary consumer fuel, as according to Professor Nagy, these metals are present naturally in crude oil and must be removed during the refining process. But Gray stressed that there are actually methods for oil refineries to reduce wastewater contamination. She again blamed a lack of effective regulation for those methods not seeing widespread implementation in the US, saying oil companies would not voluntarily hurt their profit margins by investing in more intensive waste treatment.

"There are treatment methods for this but once [the pollutants] are released you can't treat them," Gray said. "If they're not using these treatment methods, they're saving money."

Per professor Gaillard, and the EIP's January report, the only thing preventing the worst water polluters from being reigned in is a lack of political will.

"It's just a question of legislation," Gaillard said.

Gray, though, was skeptical that the political will to challenge Big Oil will coalesce anytime soon. In 2022 alone, BP, Citgo, Phillips 66 and Exxon Mobil saw over $76 billion in profits between them, while national figures in both major political parties have taken millions in oil and gas companies' political donations.

"[The Indiana plant] is constantly in violation of its permits," Gray said. "But because they're Big Oil, the EPA don't enforce them."

"I think it's absolutely criminal," she added.

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