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.