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BP reversal a win for public opinion
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 8/24/2007 12:32 AM

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Behold the power of public opinion.

BP, the petroleum company, has reversed field and announced that it will not increase the amount of ammonia and suspended solids that it discharges into Lake Michigan.

This brings to a satisfactory close a controversy that has roiled since BP's plans became widely known a month ago.

The increased discharges would have occurred as part of BP's planned expansion of its refinery in Whiting, Ind., and had received a stamp of approval from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The increased volume of suspended solids would have taken those discharges to the maximum allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The ammonia discharges, even increased to BP's projected levels, would have remained well within allowable federal limits.

So BP executives were correct all along when they noted that their plans would have kept discharges within permissible limits. But that was never the real point or central issue. The problem was that increasing the discharge of these or any other pollutants into Lake Michigan would be a serious step in the wrong direction. Particularly when so much progress has been made in cleaning up the Great Lakes, and particularly when Lake Michigan is the source of our drinking water and will be for generations to come.

Once BP's initial plans came to light, environmental groups and high-profile politicians -- U.S. Rep. Judith Biggert, Mayor Richard Daley, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk among them -- started lobbying heavily against the increased discharges. We used this space a month ago to urge a reversal.

Faced with relentless public objections, BP executives announced Thursday that increased discharges will not be part of their expansion. The company says it will either find a way to maintain current discharge amounts or will scrap expansion plans.

That decision certainly rests with BP, but we hope they will make every effort to continue with expansion plans. The firm's goal -- increasing the amount of Canadian crude it can refine -- is consistent with reducing U.S. reliance on Middle East oil.

Beyond that, some experts believe that new technologies are available or within reach that will permit companies to refine the heavier Canadian crude while still limiting polluting discharges. In fact, another welcome element of BP's announcement Thursday was that it has granted $5 million for research by Argonne National Laboratory and Purdue University to accelerate work on these technologies.

That -- as opposed to increasing Lake Michigan pollution -- is clearly the correct course.