Locals think barges are bringing piles of petcoke from the BP Whiting oil refinery. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
A few days before today’s municipal election in Chicago, there was big news about the controversial piles of petroleum coke, or petcoke, owned by a Koch Industries subsidiary and stored on the city’s Southeast Side.
“KCBX to eliminate coal and petroleum coke piles,” said the headline on a Feb. 19 press release from the company. For almost two years, local residents have been complaining about black dust blowing off the piles and asking elected officials to ban or place a moratorium on petcoke in the city.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and local Alderman John Pope have made strong statements opposing petcoke pollution. But residents are unhappy that the city has not done more to limit the operation, and that KCBX has asked for exceptions from city regulations.
The announcement would appear to mean that residents’ pleas have finally been heard and that city officials succeeded in taking action. However upon closer inspection, the headline-grabbing announcement largely just consists of the company saying it will comply with city regulations instituted a year ago.
(Photo by Kari Lydersen)
The towering machinery and fiery flares of the BP oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana were largely obscured by a cold fog Sunday morning, as refinery workers clustered around barrels of burning wood and held picket signs at 10 different spots around the sprawling perimeter.
About 1,100 members of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-1 – more than half the refinery employees – went on strike at 12:01 am Sunday, joining a nationwide strike of USW refinery workers negotiating a national contract with the industry.
USW Local 7-1 president Dave Danko told reporters that contract negotiations broke off Friday, though they still hope to return to the bargaining table next week. He said that wages are not a contested issue, but rather the union is concerned about “understaffing,” excessive amounts of overtime work, and reliance on outside contractors who he said are not as familiar as they should be with the plant.
“Instead of providing jobs in the community they’d rather run short-staffed and have people work onerous amounts of overtime,” said Danko. “For people to work sustained amounts of overtime leads to worker fatigue.”
The battle over storage of petcoke in Chicago continued Tuesday with the City Council’s zoning committee passing an ordinance that would order the city planning and development commissioner to set limits by the end of March on how much petcoke can be moved through KCBX Terminals’ facility on the Southeast Side.
Alderman John Pope, who represents the neighborhood, and environmental leaders and community activists testified in support of the ordinance, while KCBX’s president and two environmental consultants hired by the company testified that dust from the facility is not harming local residents and that stricter limits are not needed.
If the ordinance is passed by the full City Council, it remains to be seen how strict the limits will be, and how rigorously they will be enforced.
On Tuesday, the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX announced its plans to enclose the controversial piles of petcoke it has been storing on Chicago’s Southeast Side, releasing colorful drawings and an animated video — and saying it needs an extra 14 months beyond a city deadline to build the enclosure.
On Wednesday, the city’s public health commissioner sent KCBX president Dave Severson a scathing letter, denouncing the company for releasing the plans “via press release” without filing formal building plans or a variance request for an extension, under the city rules that require the enclosure be done by June 2016.
KCBX says there is no way the enclosure can be finished before late summer or fall 2017.
“Prior to your announcement, KCBX had applied for no permits and shared no formal plans or architectural drawings for this facility, despite the fact that the clock on your two-year timeline for building the facility started running more than six months ago,” said the December 17 letter from Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Commissioner Bechara Choucair.
KCBX paved roads to reduce pollution at its Chicago petcoke facility. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
The piles of petroleum coke, or petcoke, on Chicago’s Southeast Side that have created a furor over the past year and a half would become invisible under a plan that the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals unveiled on Tuesday.
The piles would be enclosed in a roughly 10-story-high, 1,000-foot-long building. The rest of the company’s 82-acre footprint alongside the Calumet River would be planted with grass and trees, as shown in the company’s newly released renderings and 30-second animated video.
KCBX says the plan shows their commitment to remaining in Chicago, investing in a “state-of-the-art facility” and working to mollify local residents upset about pollution. Local opponents say the release of the enclosure plan is just a public relations move, given that the company doesn’t plan to complete it until more than a year after a city deadline.
Chicago neighborhood activists say Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking too much credit for the closure of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants. (Photo by Daniel X. O’Neill via Creative Commons)
Even though they closed in 2012, Chicago’s controversial Fisk and Crawford coal plants are making an encore appearance in this year’s municipal elections, to be held Feb. 24.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first televised campaign ad featured the mayor on a park bench talking with Kim Wasserman, one of the community leaders who worked for more than a decade to try to force the coal plants to clean up or shut down.
The ad portrays Wasserman giving Emanuel credit for brokering a deal that shut down the Chicago plants, which immediately sparked outcry from many of the community activists who had been working on the issue since the early 2000s. They said they resented Emanuel taking credit for the plants’ closing. And they pointed out that the plants were likely to close anyway – and did close well before Emanuel’s deadline – because of competition from cheap natural gas. Additionally, the deal Emanuel brokered included the dropping of a lawsuit against the company Midwest Generation’s other Illinois coal plants.
Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)
The smart meters being delivered to Illinois homes under the state’s 2011 smart grid law could potentially spark significant energy savings – relieving burden on the grid and on power supplies and saving money for residents.
But that’s only if people use the information provided by smart meters to modify their habits, by shifting when they use energy, installing more efficient appliances and the like. Figuring out how to use a smart meter and respond to the data it provides is a complicated and intimidating task for anyone.
It is especially challenging for renters and public housing residents who don’t own their appliances or even pay their own energy bills; or for senior citizens who don’t know how to use the internet; or for immigrants who don’t speak English. And for people in low-income and marginalized neighborhoods in general, beset by violence, decrepit housing, and a lack of well-paying jobs, understanding and modifying energy use is likely to be a very low priority.
Barges filled with material that appears to be petroleum coke line the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)
A full rainbow arched over the Calumet River on a bleak day in late September, lending a hint of beauty to the massive abandoned grain elevator, the ramshackle warehouses and the lines of barges moored by the Illinois International Port.
Some of the barges were covered, but at least nine of them were uncovered and piled high with a powdery black material that appeared to be petroleum coke, or petcoke, the byproduct of oil refining that has sparked a grassroots uprising and political debate in Chicago.
It’s not clear that the material is definitely petcoke. Facilities along the Calumet also handle and store coal and metallurgical coke, or metcoke, and various other bulk materials.
U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Simone Mausz said that no government agency tracks barges on the Calumet or other Chicago rivers. “It’s impossible to tell how many barges go up and down the river, how many are ‘red flag,’ how many are carrying petcoke,” she said.
An industry spokesman declined to disclose what materials the barges are handling, and officials from Chicago’s port authority did not respond to requests for information on the shipments.
In the absence of information, residents see the barges as the latest wrinkle in the petcoke story, representing new concerns about the material and also about a serious lack of transparency regarding any potentially toxic materials that are moved on the river.
(Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle via Creative Commons)
As Chicago clamors to be known as the country’s most sustainable city – promoting solar installations, electric vehicles and energy efficiency – the City Council has been considering an ordinance that would mandate most gas stations offer gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, or E15.
The ordinance was framed as a step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote cleaner energy, and was seen as potentially sparking other such municipal mandates nationwide. It is sponsored by Alderman Edward Burke, who has pushed clean-air measures including the original ordinance to close the city’s coal-fired power plants and a smoking ban.
The E15 ordinance has strong backing from farmers, part of an Illinois ethanol industry reported as creating 73,156 jobs and $17.5 billion in economic activity annually. It is backed by the American Lung Association. And it also is meant to provide relief from city gas prices identified in June as the highest in the nation — E15 blends are typically cheaper 5 to 15 cents per gallon cheaper than conventional 87 or 89 octane gasoline.
Workers for Ailey Solar install panel mounts on a Chicago rooftop. (Photo courtesy Ailey Solar)
Two years ago, Dorian Breuer waited six months to get permits to install solar panels on his home on the south side of Chicago.
At that same time, Breuer was in the heat of the battle to close Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, as a leader of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.
Today the coal plants are closed and Breuer, along with Jack Ailey, another leader in the campaign, run one of the four companies chosen to implement the city’s Solar Chicago program offering discounted solar installations through a bulk buy.
The program is administered by the organization Vote Solar, in partnership with the Environmental Law and Policy Center and World Wildlife Fund. It is meant to jumpstart residential rooftop solar energy in Chicago, and if projections go as planned it will mean a raft of new orders for Ailey Solar, founded by Breuer and Ailey two years ago.