08/02/2012 03:41 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

BP Versus the Citizen

Four years ago, a small group of environmental activists faced down a crowd of nearly 500 angry workers sporting sunny yellow and green buttons at a permit hearing in Whiting, Indiana. Their employer, BP, wanted to expand its refinery in northwest Indiana to process Canadian tar sand oil and clearly expected to sail through the permit process with the support of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). The workers stated they thought their jobs were in jeopardy if the permit wasn't approved. The environmentalists ( I was among them) brought up issues of impact on regional air quality and concerns about lack of pollution control equipment. We were booed by the workers and treated dismissively by the IDEM representatives.

(It may not have helped that I stepped up to the podium wearing a light face mask and then put on a respirator to demonstrate the difference between the current air quality and what I thought would happen without changes to the permit.)

In spite of feeling somewhat hopeless, my husband and I agreed to join a lawsuit with the Sierra Club, the Save the Dunes Conservation Fund and a small Indiana non-profit named Legal Environmental Aid Foundation (LEAF) against IDEM and BP in order to force them to make modifications to the proposed plant expansion under the Federal Clean Air Act. Eventually we were deposed by IDEM and BP and in spite of being Law and Order addicts, (meaning we are fond of pugnacious defenders of truth and justice), we learned to only answer the questions put to us and not to volunteer anything that could be used against our stance that we were concerned citizens who wanted to breathe clean air (and were willing to stand up for the rights of our neighbors and the workers at the plant for clean air as well). Ironically, we could not cite any science about the proposed expansion because then we could be accused of posing as experts. Again, we felt beat up and not optimistic.

Imagine our delight recently when we were informed by our LEAF attorney, Kim Ferraro (now on the staff of the Hoosier Environmental Council) that not only had we won, but that BP has agreed to reduce emissions from the plant by at least 50 percent. In addition, they are paying $8 million in fines to the EPA and another $2 million to create a fenceline monitoring project of all emissions from the plant. Finally, they are making $500,000 available to local government and school districts to retrofit diesel buses.

As we predicted to the workers, the $9.5 million BP has committed to spending to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the plant means more jobs, not fewer. The environmental monitoring project may also lead to income for local citizens who are hired to help maintain the monitoring of emissions and of course, retrofitting buses provides more jobs to local citizens.

In my heart of hearts, I would like to see BP and other gas and oil companies discontinue using Canadian tar sand oil. Called the "world's dirtiest fuels," by Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk among others, tar sand oil requires more energy to produce and causes three times more greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil. Despite the emission controls and monitoring, the Whiting plant will continue to impact the air (and eventually the water in Lake Michigan) quality in NW Indiana and the Chicago region. In spite of this, I'm encouraged to believe that citizens can make a difference. In this time of nearly universal cynicism, I hope our example might inspire others to take action.