It is the second largest lake among the Laurentian Great Lakes. They are the largest group of fresh water lakes on Earth. Of late concern is growing over the pollution of the system.
Tens of thousands of people here have signed protest petitions over the refinery issue and the petitions would be delivered next week to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.
Organizers said Monday last that they had collected 45,000 signatures.
Regulators in Indiana allowed the refinery in Whiting, just across the Illinois state line, to increase the amounts of ammonia and suspended solids that it releases into the lake after the facility undergoes a $3 billion expansion.
Whiting, a BP unit that produces 16 million gallons of oil products a day, about half of it gasoline.
BP last received a discharge permit for the refinery in 1990.
Backers of the expansion, including Governor Daniels, said a bigger refinery would mean more jobs for Indiana — an estimated 2,000 contract jobs for the expansion and 80 positions at the refinery.
It is estimated that the expanded refinery would produce an additional 620 million gallons of gasoline each year. Americans consume, on average, about 385 million gallons of gasoline a day.
But many don't buy arguments of job expansion, surely not at the cost of the environment, they say.
"At a time when we've spent billions and billions of dollars investing in the rehabilitation of the Great Lakes, we should not be taking a step backward," said Cameron Davis, the president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a conservation advocacy group that has participated in the petition drive.
Last week, by a vote of 387 to 26, the United States House of Representatives approved a resolution urging Indiana to reconsider the permit.
The resolution was introduced by Representatives Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, and Vernon J. Ehlers, Republican of Michigan.
"Fifteen years ago, they may have been able to pull this off," Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel said, referring to the permit issued by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in June to the Whiting Refinery.
"But there has been a total consciousness change among people who live here."
Daniels said he had no plans to rescind the permit.
"Here's one of the biggest steps forward for the Midwest, really the whole nation," Daniels, a Republican, told reporters last week. "I don't think it should be held up without a good scientific reason, and none has been provided."
According to documents on BP's Web site, the new permit allows the refinery to discharge 1,584 pounds of ammonia, an increase of 54 percent over the current level, into the lake each day. Also allowed is discharge of up to 4,925 pounds of suspended solids into the lake each day, an increase of 35 percent.
Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, said that the Indiana permit's requirements were stricter than federal requirements, and that BP expected to operate well within those limits.
"We followed the regulatory process to the letter and did everything by the book," Dean said.
The protests against the permit have been loudest from Chicago, Indiana's urban neighbor to the northwest, where Mayor Richard M.Daley has been striving to create a green image for the city and its 30 miles of lakeshore. A committee of the Chicago City Council is scheduled to discuss the matter on Thursday.
The Illinois governor, Rod R Blagojevich, a Democrat, has threatened legal action to stop the additional discharge of pollutants.
The permit is part of BP's plan to expand and modernize the Whiting refinery, which was built in 1889 by the Standard Oil Company and which now processes 405,000 barrels of crude oil each day. About 1,700 people work at the facility, and BP has an annual payroll of about $100 million in Indiana. The expansion is set for completion in 2011.
BP documents said the company would also spend $150 million to improve its wastewater treatment plant in Whiting, from which it discharges about 20 million gallons of treated wastewater a day, including the ammonia and suspended solids addressed by the permit, into Lake Michigan.
But that promise has not sat well with lawmakers in Illinois and the region's conservation groups, which have said the company could do more treatment to prevent the increase in pollutants.
Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the region met with BP executives in Washington to express their dismay with the issuance of the permit. They are scheduled to meet again on Sept. 1, and have asked BP to look for ways to make its water treatment process more environmentally friendly.
The company will review its water treatment plans, but will not halt plans for the Whiting facility's expansion, Dean said.
The expected increase in toxic waste going into Lake Michigan has raised the ire of every boarder state, except Indiana. Congressional representatives from Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin championed a resolution urging Indiana to reconsider the approval. It passed the House 387-26 last week.
Mayors of several Wisconsin coastal communities, including Sheboygan, sent a strongly worded letter opposing the discharge permit to the Indiana state agency. These cities are among the dozens that rely on Lake Michigan for safe drinking water. The people who live in these communities also fish and boat on Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, already under stress from pollution and non-native plant and animal life, should not be further compromised by increasing the allowable amount of waste dumped in them.
BP contends that it is spending $150 million on environmental protection upgrades as part of the refinery expansion.
Given the huge profits oil companies are reaping, shouldn't more of this money be spent on treatment of waste water so that pollution won't be increased?
We think this is the position the Indiana Department of Environmental Protection should have taken.
Instead, the agency says the increase in ammonia discharge it is allowing is within the federal guidelines.
That's a cop out, critics charge.
At a time when the future of the Great Lakes is in jeopardy from a lack of environmental care and concern — and inaction on long needed cleanup plans — it is most discouraging to see an agency entrusted with protecting this natural resource take such a cavalier attitude.