David Hoppe

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:: Listen up

on strike at BP

by David Hoppe

What was called “a massive flare-up,” created thick billows of smoke at the BP oil refinery in Whiting, IN, on the morning of February 23. According to BP, the situation was dealt with in about eight minutes. No injuries or damage to property was reported.

The pictures are enough to give you pause. You can check them out at the Northwest Indiana Times website (nwitimes.com).

This incident — or accident, if you prefer — provided a punctuation mark for the ongoing, and largely ignored (by statewide media, anyway) strike by refinery workers at the Whiting facility. Their strike is actually part of a national walkout organized by the United Steelworkers Union. It is now heading into its third week.

The strike is largely about safety and working conditions. The union claims workers have been called on to work shifts lasting as long as 18-24 hours. They want more staff brought on board to deal with the amount of work that has to be done, and they fear that worker fatigue can lead to accidents, endangering lives and putting communities at risk.

There’s plenty to be concerned about here. Last year, BP released a large glug of oil into Lake Michigan.  The lake happens to be the primary source of drinking water for millions of people. Although it’s easy for folks in Central Indiana to forget this, Lake Michigan is one of our most valuable natural resources.

As far as we know, that spill was contained before it did any significant damage.

But Whiting’s refinery is now a major destination for tar sands crude coming from Canada. That’s right: the same excessively dirty stuff the Keystone pipeline is supposed to carry is already making its way into Indiana for processing. BP has spent the past several years expanding its Whiting facility to deal with it.

Mitch Daniels, when he was governor, and Tom Easterly, the head of the Department of Environmental Management, were thrilled by this project. So thrilled, in fact, they were ready to let BP do just about anything it wanted in the way of dumping toxic waste into the lake, or spewing cancerous chemicals into the air.

Jobs, you know. Energy independence.

Fortunately, the Federal government stepped in, with a timely, “Hold on!” No doubt some saw this as meddling; it has served to keep BP in check.

So far.

The thing is, when we look at what’s been going on with energy projects around the country of late, we see what appears to be an ever-accelerating cascade of spills, dumps, explosions and flare-ups.  The creation of fossil fuel is famously profitable. But when pursuit of those profits puts public health and safety at risk, you need a referee.

Or a whistle-blower.

Unions have a bad name in Indiana. Our state government has been doing everything it can to undermine them, claiming unions add too much to the cost of doing business. But the workers in Whiting aren’t asking for more money. They’re blowing the whistle on a risky situation. Everybody better listen.