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Environment/Sustainability Thu Nov 07 2013

Chicago Residents are Fed Up with Petcoke Pollution

KCBX petcoke pile in southeast Chicago (Photo by Emily Brosious)

Residents in Chicago's Southeast Side and South Deering neighborhood complain that black dust from petcoke piles along the Calumet River is polluting their communities.

"I have black soot in my windows and my curtains are completely black," Cathy Hibbard, a Southeast Side Chicago resident said in an interview. "If I open up my windows, I get that stuff all on my kitchen counters. It's horrible."

Traditionally, coal, crushed limestone and other materials have been stored along the river. But with the recent closure of two coal-fired plants and decreased demands for coal, petroleum coke, or "petcoke," is now being piled up at these waste storage terminals.

Petcoke [PDF] is the byproduct of refining heavy tar sands oil.

BP's oil refinery in nearby Whiting, Indiana, generates tons of petcoke. It is unable to store the bulk of the waste, so BP ships the petcoke along the Calumet River to stockpiles in southeast Chicago. From there, the petcoke is transported around the world and burned as industrial fuel.

Michael Hawthorne, environment reporter at the Chicago Tribune, said that by the end of the year, BP is expected to finish work on new equipment that will more than triple the production of petcoke at its Whiting refinery.

"The project will turn the sprawling Indiana plant into the world's second-largest source of petroleum coke and Chicago into one of the biggest repositories of the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste," Hawthorne reported.

KCBX petcoke storage terminal in southeast Chicago (Photo/Emily Brosious)

The largest stockpile storage terminal in southeast Chicago is owned by KCBX Terminals Co., a subsidiary of Koch Industries.

In Whiting, BP's Clean Air Act permit and a federal settlement require petcoke piles to be enclosed by 40-foot walls.

Illinois doesn't mandate such precautions. The mountains of hazardous petcoke piled up at KCBX Terminal are unenclosed and free to blow in the wind.

Hibbard says her kids can't play outside on windy days because of the petcoke dust. "You can even feel the little speckles of dust hitting your face," she said.

Illinois law does require some dust-prevention measures including spraying the stockpiles with water, but environmentalists say this isn't very effective. Enclosing the piles is the only way to contain the hazardous dust from blowing, they say.

A KCBX representative could not be readily reached for comment on the matter. The company has said in previous statements that it can't cover the petcoke piles because "stockpile locations and usage patterns are constantly changing."

Environmental activists contest that claim, pointing to states like Indiana and California where petcoke stockpiles are required to be enclosed.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently investigating the neighborhood complaints against KCBX.

On Monday, Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit against KCBX Terminals. Madigan said the petcoke piles have been growing with out adequate environmental safety precautions in place.

KCBX petcoke piles in southeast Chicago (Photo/Emily Brosious)

Josh at NRDC / November 7, 2013 11:14 AM

Worth noting that once BP Whiting fires up its new coker, the refinery will spit out 6,000 tons of petcoke EVERY DAY. We have not seen the worst of it along the Calumet yet.

This is an issue that must be considered in the myriad of other tar sands infrastructure projects like Keystone XL and the Enbridge pipeline proposed just south of Chicago in Flanagan, IL. If we continue to take more and more of this low grade oil, we will see petcoke production spike and piles pop up in plenty of other communities (not to mention the frightening climate implications from ongoing engagement with what is often termed as "the dirtiest oil on the planet" out of Alberta's tar sands fields).

The piles on the Southeast Side make clear that the status quo is untenable. We can't just keep signing off on these projects any more.

Josh at NRDC / November 7, 2013 11:16 AM

BTW, here is a recent shot of the piles from the other side...massive:

Rob Esquivel / November 7, 2013 12:50 PM

Subject: Stop The Petcoke Contamination in Chicago


I created a petition to Rahm Emanuel, Mayor, The Illinois State House, and 5 others which says:

"Sign on to petition Mayor Rahm Emanuel to protect Lake Michigan and surrounding community from the pollution of exposed piles of petcoke. Koch is bad for your health."

Will you sign this petition? Click here:


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