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Petcoke and Chicago: Can They Coexist?

Posted By Matt Baker On March 27, 2014 @ 8:35 am | No Comments

petcoke1By Erin Verpil

With petcoke piles growing larger on the south side of Chicago, a battle is ensuing over the newly proposed ordinance introduced in February by Mayor Emanuel, Alderman Pope (10th) and Alderman Burke (14th). This ordinance would “prevent Chicago from becoming a dumping ground” for petroleum coke, known as “petcoke,” in the city and ban expansion of existing facilities that process, store or handle the material.

With petcoke defined in two completely different lights, it’s easy to see where the problem starts. Environmentalists and concerned citizens define the material as a dirty byproduct of the oil refining process that can potentially act as a lung irritant and carcinogen. Whereas industrialists, such as Koch Industries [1] subsidiary KCBX Terminals, define petcoke as “a valuable product intentionally produced as part of the process of refining crude oil,” with use as a fuel and in the production of cement, steel and other products.

No matter which side of this issue you are on, there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution for compromise. The intent of the proposed legislation is to introduce stricter regulations on the storage of large bulk solid materials to fully enclose solid materials such as coal, pig iron and petcoke, while facilities with smaller storage capacity and smaller deliveries would be required to install wind barriers as protective measures and adopt other practices. While neighbors and Chicago area residents are pushing to have this legislation passed, many businesses that depend on the delivery and use of these materials are calling it detrimental to their livelihoods. So, can there be some common ground between both views? Taking a deeper look into each viewpoint might help shed some light on the situation.

Chicago residents and neighbors near the storage facilities

During a January 13th public hearing and the subsequent 50-day public comment period for this new legislation, many residents who neighbor the petcoke storage facilities made their worries and ideas heard publicly. “Trucks will still be allowed to transport bulk materials which will lead to fugitive petcoke entering the residential areas,” stated South Chicago resident Carl Camacho. Others, such as Bechara Coucair, Chicago’s Commissioner of Health, worry not only that the piles of petcoke “are unsightly, but more importantly, they are endangering the health and well-being of Chicago residents who are forced to breath in the toxic particles when they become airborne.”

Many residents are highly concerned about the safety of their health and of the safety of the surrounding water, and are pushing for these regulations to pass quickly. Some are even pressuring officials to increase the regulations to a stricter standard that would decrease the amount of time for the two-year grace period for the construction of an enclosure of the bulk materials, and for an increase in the penalties and fines for the companies that do not comply with these new guidelines within the given time frame.

petcoke2In the meantime, the Illinois Attorney General’s office [2] filed a second lawsuit on March 4th against KCBX Terminals, which stores petcoke at their 100th Street facility. They allege the Calumet River was contaminated with runoff because of an insufficient boundary between the petcoke piles and the river, allowing for storm runoff into the river. This follows the Attorney General’s first lawsuit that was filed in November, which alleged air pollution violations at another of the company’s facilities on the south side.

Industries and businesses that may be affected

The biggest complaint against the new legislation is that it’s overreaching on restrictions of non-related bulk materials. Salt used for inclement weather treatments on the roads is a major point of contention for this argument. Morton Salt, Inc. [3] commented that “the best management practices identified in the proposed regulation are inconsistent with the best management practices for salt handling and storage.” They are requesting that salt be a clearer exception to these new proposed practices since salt is water soluble and would not hold up under the new proposed handling regulations that include spraying water or sealant chemicals on the piles to reduce fugitive dust.

Other arguments against the legislation are coming from smaller businesses that rely on the export and delivery of petcoke and similar materials to stay in business. Many organizations that are connected to the river terminals fear that they will not be able to comply with the new regulations and will ultimately lose current business and future opportunities. This in turn might lead to the loss of jobs or the departure of businesses from the area. Others claim that the proposed restrictions are cost-prohibitive and would negatively impact their businesses by having to pass along the significant increases in costs to their customers. And lastly, many businesses argue that the regulations are too vague and ambiguous in their description of “bulk solid materials,” leaving it open to include many facilities that are not related to petcoke.

Looking to others for examples

Large petcoke store piles across from Detroit’s Riverwalk were ordered to be removed in August 2013 by the city’s mayor after large dark clouds were documented as blowing across the river. Residents who lived along the riverfront complained of the dust entering their homes when a window or door was opened, but later sited that this issue was eliminated once the petcoke piles were removed. The business that was storing the petcoke is now seeking alternative materials that are denser to store on that site.

California is currently the U.S.’s largest producer of petcoke but they have little regulations concerning the byproduct other than the state and federal regulations regarding burning it, which is not allowed due to its high concentration of carbon dioxide emissions. They are exporting their stock piles overseas, with a majority of it going to China, where it is then burned for electricity.

In West Virginia’s federal court, the largest proposed settlement to date was filed on March 5th against the nation’s largest coal producers for violating their water pollution permits. They breached their pollution permits by discharging toxic waste from mines and coal processing plants across waterways in five Appalachian states. The settlement states the payment of a $27.5 million fine, with half going to the federal government and the other half being divided among Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The settlement also states that the mining facilities will reduce their toxic discharges by installing many safeguarding measures including the installations of wastewater treatment systems for each of their 104 mines and processing plants. The estimated cost for these improvements is $200 million.

Probably the most well-known petcoke problem area is Alberta, Canada. They are the largest processor of oilsands, a denser crude oil producing more petcoke. The Canadian government has been debating the benefits and costs—both economic and environmental—of their relatively new oil boom. Many of the economic benefits have been proved, while many of the environmental costs are just beginning to come to light as they grapple with their own country’s versions of the Keystone Pipeline: the Energy East and Pacific Trails pipelines. Their wide use of “tailing ponds,” artificial reservoirs where petroleum byproducts are settled out, has recently come under the scrutiny of many residents and environmental activists for their continued seepage.

In seeing other area’s issues and their minimal movement on either side to rectify the coexistence argument, Chicago is poised to become a leader in the global market of how to properly address the needs of both industry and environment. Can the local government and industries can work together to find a solution to the pollution of the waterways and the surrounding residential neighborhoods without slighting their health concerns or the drinking water source? If the environmentalists and concerned residents can have their voices heard and acted upon by government officials without the legislation overreaching it’s regulations and devastating many smaller businesses that rely upon the bulk materials trade to keep afloat, then maybe the city just might find a great solution in which other areas in need can follow. So can they coexist? Only time will tell.

Photos: Josh Mogerman

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URL to article: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/2014/03/27/petcoke-and-chicago-can-they-coexist/

URLs in this post:

[1] Koch Industries: http://www.kochind.com/

[2] Illinois Attorney General’s office: http://illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/

[3] Morton Salt, Inc.: http://www.mortonsalt.com/

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