EPA leads investigation of crude discharge at BP Whiting refinery

The US Environmental Protection Agency took formal charge of investigation and cleanup efforts after an undetermined amount of crude oil spilled into Lake Michigan from BP PLC’s Whiting, Ind., refinery.

EPA issued a federal interest notice to BP of the federal government’s involvement and directing the company to conduct a cleanup, the agency said on Mar. 25. It said BP notified the federal National Response Center on Mar. 24, 2014 at 5:25 p.m. CDT that a spill had occurred.

The discharge happened late that afternoon, possibly when an upset at a crude distillation unit may have sent crude into the refinery’s cooling water outfall and then into the lake, the company said on Mar. 25. BP’s investigation of the incident continues, and the refinery has taken steps to prevent another discharge, it added.

“Meanwhile, response efforts continue,” BP’s statement continued. “Lines of boom have been deployed to contain the oil and wind has blown oil toward the shore, where crews are vacuuming it out of the water and cleaning the limited quantities that have reached land between the refinery’s wastewater treatment plant and a nearby steel mill.”

Primary responders

EPA, BP, and the US Coast Guard are the main responders in the matter, according to a spokesman at Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management, which also was notified.

EPA said BP deployed more than 2,000 ft of boom to contain the oil, and used vacuum trucks to remove about 5,200 gal of an oil-water mixture from the spill location. “BP crews also are combing a nearby company-owned beach for oil globs and conducting air monitoring to ensure the safety of the public,” the agency said.

In a separate Mar. 25 statement, the US Coast Guard said some responders found some of the crude-water mixture made landfall in a company-owned cove next to the refinery, with balls of tar less than 1 cm in diameter with an average of 20 tar balls/10 ft of shoreline.

It said a helicopter crew from the USCG’s Traverse City, Mich., air station flew over the scene and did not report any sheen or pockets of oil beyond the refinery.

Refinery snapshot

The refinery has a 413,000 b/d crude distillation capacity and covers about 1,400 acres. Its daily product output includes 7.5 million gal of gasoline, 4.5 million gal of ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel, and 1.5 million gal of jet fuel, according to a BP fact sheet.

Illinois’s two US senators, Richard J. Durbin (D) and Mark Kirk (R), jointly said they were encouraged to learn that “the source of the spill has been closed, the oil is contained, and conditions on Lake Michigan are such that the impact of the spill could be minimal.

“However, 3 weeks ago, BP announced a plan to nearly double its processing of heavy crude oil at its BP Whiting Refinery,” they went on. “Given today’s events and BP’s decision to increase production, we are extremely concerned about the possibility of a future spill that may not be so easily contained.”

The two senators said they plan to hold BP accountable for this spill and will ask for a thorough report about its cause; what the impact of the Whiting refinery’s production increase on Lake Michigan might be, and steps which are being taken to prevent any future spill.

EPA said it would continue to work with BP, USCG, and IDEM on the crude oil containment and cleanup. “At this point there is no estimate of cleanup cost or duration,” it indicated on Mar. 25.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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