When the Indiana EPA granted a British Petroleum oil refinery permission to increase its industrial discharge into Lake Michigan, Chicagoans cried foul. But the Chicago Sun-Times went one step further, calling for a reader-boycott of BP. Editorial page editor Cheryl Reed explains why she’s going after the company's bottom line.
BOB GARFIELD: Last week, The Chicago Sun-Times editorial page did something seldom seen, at least in the past 50 years. It registered a scathing opinion not just with a carefully-worded argument but with calls for a reader boycott of a corporation. The company is British Petroleum and the boycott is in response to a recent permit granted to a BP oil refinery on the Indiana side of Lake Michigan that will allow for increased industrial waste discharges into the lake.
The editorial page of The Sun-Times has historically leaned conservative, but with new management and a new editorial page editor has come a new populist political stance. Cheryl Reed is that editorial page editor, and she joins us now. Cheryl, welcome to the show. CHERYL REED: Thanks Bob, thank you very much. I'm glad to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Wow, a call for a boycott. That's a pretty bold move. Do you know, by any chance, when the last time The Sun-Times incited the public in this way? CHERYL REED: Well, certainly not in this way, but I'm sure that we have incited them in many other ways. No one here seems to recall the last time that we called for a boycott of a corporation. BOB GARFIELD: Now, far be it from me to be an apologist for BP, but there's no accusation that they did anything illegal or untoward here. Why call for this particular kind of action? CHERYL REED: Well, our legislators in Illinois and the newspaper and our residents in Chicago were very concerned when we learned that this is basically a done deal. And at that point, we were learning that BP was being allowed to dump 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more tiny sludge.
Now, when you can actually see the intake boat out in Lake Michigan taking in your drinking water, you understand why people in Chicago are very upset that a company that made 22.3 billion dollars last year can't seem to find a quarter of an acre in order to put a plant that would process the ammonia so they wouldn't have to dump that into our lake. BOB GARFIELD: Just to clarify, BP is situated on a 1,700-acre parcel in Northern Indiana where their refinery is. But still, in all, you know, one of the papers in Chicago - actually, I think it was your competitor, The Tribune - did point out that while there would be a substantial increase in the dumping of ammonia, it's quite the drop in the bucket compared to just what rainfall delivers into Lake Michigan because of air pollution. CHERYL REED: Well, we can't really control what is being dropped into the lake because of air. What we can control is a company who is on the banks of Lake Michigan and is making a decision to dump more pollution purposefully into the lake. BOB GARFIELD: But, once again, if BP behaved legally, shouldn't the target here be the government of Indiana and the governor, Mitch Daniels, who supported this licensing on the grounds of 80 new permanent jobs and 2,000 temporary jobs during the expansion of the refinery? If there are culprits here, isn't it them? CHERYL REED: There are culprits here. And Chicago sent a contingent down to Indianapolis today to testify at a hearing in front of the Indiana EPA, and they were denied the ability to testify.
So, I mean, obviously Indiana and the governor of Indiana doesn't want to listen to people from Illinois complaining that we think BP, the green company that is trying to tout its image as, you know, environmentally friendly, that this company should spend a little more money and try to process their pollution.
BOB GARFIELD: In these past seven weeks, as you've tried to help lift this newspaper from the ashes of the Conrad Black scandal, is BP a victim of you just, you know, looking around for a hot issue that you can use to announce yourself? CHERYL REED: No. I think that we're very passionate, and we've been given license to be passionate. And that's what our new editorial direction is about. It's about trying to engage readers and tap into what our readers are thinking. And that's why we were outraged when we read the stories.
I don't think that's trying to appeal to subscribers or trying to win over people in the wake of Conrad Black. I really don't. BOB GARFIELD: Companies behave abominably all the time, because, after all, the free market is free of many things, including conscience, and some far more abominably than this. Will you be calling for, do you suppose, for further boycotts when companies, let's say those outside of Chicago, get caught doing something egregious? CHERYL REED: Yes, I think when it's warranted. When we have evidence that these companies we find are dumping into the lake or doing something that we consider egregious, yes, we will take them on. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Cheryl, thank you very much. CHERYL REED: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Cheryl Reed is the editorial page editor of The Chicago Sun-Times.