'We just want answers': Public shut out of meeting over BP leak in Whiting

The open forum on BP's environmental impact in Whiting, Indiana, abruptly ended when the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) meeting faced unexpected opposition.

As concerned residents gathered at East Chicago Central High School for the public meeting, tensions ran high. 

However, hopes of airing grievances and seeking answers were dashed when the school superintendent and board didn’t want cameras recording the proceedings.

"They had concerns about the media being present," said Allen Carter, Indiana Department of Environmental Management communications director.

The meeting, intended to address the renewal of TV permits for BP in Whiting, was a critical opportunity for state officials to discuss the draft air permit and address community concerns. 

Unfortunately, the actions taken by school authorities hindered any progress toward transparency and accountability.

"This community really deserves to thrive. It's mostly black, brown and low-income. They've had it," said Susan Thomas, from local environmental group, Just Transition Northwest Indiana. "Their health matters."

A leak from a storage container on January 18th released a foul smell into the air, affecting communities as far as 24 miles away in Tinley Park and other South Suburbs. 

Then, on Feb. 1st, a power disruption led to increased flaring at the facility, causing dark smoke to fill the sky. 

While flaring is a safety measure, residents reported feeling sick and exposed as a result.

"If no one else gets an alert, the schools should have an alert in East Chicago, Hammond, and Whiting," said Carlotta Blake-King, a school board trustee with the School City of Hammond.

"Our children were experiencing headache. I am here to ask what happened," Blake-King said.

With the refinery now set to shut down for three weeks for inspection following the power outage, questions linger about the safety protocols in place and the potential risks posed to surrounding communities. 

Even city leaders in East Chicago, Indiana, find themselves grappling with unanswered questions in the wake of these incidents.

"We just want answers," said Monica Guzman-Gonzalez, 1st District trustee with East Chicago, Indiana.

On Sunday, the School of East Chicago (SCEC) issued a statement on the public meeting, shared below: 

"The School City of East Chicago (SCEC) agreed to host a public meeting on February 1, 2024, to be conducted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) on the topic of air quality permitting for the BP Whiting Refinery.  

"IDEM was notified that they would be responsible to provide security for the meeting, which they indicated they could accomplish through coordination with local law enforcement agencies. The meeting was then rescheduled from February 1, 2024 to February 8, 2024, at IDEM’s request.

"An unfortunate confluence of events, including the rescheduling of the public meeting, the heightened public interest in the subject matter due to recent events involving the BP Whiting Refinery, and an East Chicago Central varsity basketball game led to a significant number of people present at Central High School, the scheduled location for the public meeting, on February 8, 2024. 

"Approximately one hour prior to the scheduled start of the public meeting, SCEC leadership attempted to determine whether or not IDEM had arranged for sufficient security to manage the number of attendees who were already present outside the building. 

"Approximately one-half hour prior to the scheduled start of the meeting, IDEM advised that it would only be able to assure the presence of "roving" officers of the East Chicago Police Department, who would not be dedicated to providing security at the meeting location.

"SCEC then attempted to redirect its security and custodial resources in order to permit the meeting to be safely conducted despite the lack of additional security. Approximately ten minutes prior to the scheduled start time, despite the best efforts and intentions of SCEC to facilitate a safe and orderly public meeting, some members of the public began to attempt forced entry into the building entrance. 

"At that time, SCEC leadership conferred and determined that, in the interests of the safety of those participating in the meeting and the safety of the patrons attending the basketball game, the public meeting could not be conducted as scheduled. The meeting was canceled at that time and was not conducted as scheduled, due to the failure of IDEM to obtain an appropriate security commitment and the unruly behavior of some members of the public who had gathered for the meeting.

"SCEC has proudly hosted similar public meetings for IDEM in the past, which have been conducted without incident and with appropriate security personnel in place. Prior to the scheduled February 8, 2024, meeting, discussions had taken place between SCEC and IDEM with regard to a "backup date" which could be utilized in the event of inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances. 

"SCEC is willing and able to arrange for this public meeting to be rescheduled on the noted "backup date," or on any other date, which can be coordinated with IDEM with arrangements for an appropriate security commitment."