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.
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.
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.
Chicago residents protest petroleum coke storage piles in April. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)
Marcy Juarez, a hospice worker living on Chicago’s Southeast side, says she still can’t open the windows on hot days, because of gritty black dust that blows in.
Her children have urged her to sell the house, but she’s lived there for 35 years, recently remodeled, loves the community and can’t imagine leaving.
Mari Barboza and her family still feel they can’t enjoy a barbecue outside, since the afternoon last summer when a cloud of black dust ruined the food at her mother’s 60th birthday party.
Other residents of Chicago’s Southeast side likewise say their homes, cars and patio furniture are still frequently coated in black grime, as one woman exhibited on a wipe soiled with thick black residue at a community meeting July 28.
They say their lives continue to be seriously impacted by the piles of petroleum coke (petcoke) that the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals is storing in the community, despite KCBX’s moves to comply with rules that the city health department issued in March.
Now KCBX is requesting variances from the health department rules, and in its request filed June 9 the company threatened to sue if it doesn’t get the exemptions.
Michigan’s state capitol building. (Photo by Matt Katzenberger via Creative Commons)
A Michigan lawmaker wants to expand the state’s definition of renewable energy to include more fuel made from municipal and industrial solid waste.
State Rep. Aric Nesbitt, a Republican who represents a district near Kalamazoo, is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate what he calls “unnecessary burdens on the appropriate use” of burning solid waste, and would expand the definition to include byproducts like petroleum coke.
Opponents have called it a “gerrymander” of the definition of renewable energy at a time when the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard of 10 percent from renewables is set to expire next year.
Nesbitt says it’s a logical alternative to storing the materials in landfills.
“This is a very important discussion to have,” said Nesbitt, who chairs the state House Energy and Technology Committee. “There’s a lot of picking winners and losers. I think we need to really decide on what course and what standard we need to go for.”
Nurses and others call for tougher petroleum coke restrictions at a protest near the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana. (Photo by Kari Lydersen for Midwest Energy News)
“Stunning, just stunning, just stunning,” said Sheilah Garland, shaking her head as she stared out the window of the bus rolling along a dirt road next to towering black piles of petroleum coke on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
As an organizer of National Nurses United, a labor union representing about 6,000 nurses in Chicago and 185,000 nationwide, Garland has seen a lot. She represents nurses working in grueling and traumatic situations on a daily basis. And the union has picked fights with powerful politicians, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But Garland was shocked by the piles of petcoke, about six stories high, located across the street from homes. She was also perturbed to see employees walking onsite without respiratory masks.
The nurses union has joined local residents’ fight to get petcoke transportation and storage banned in Chicago. They see it as a serious public health issue and part of their larger social justice advocacy mission.
Residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side strategize about fighting petcoke at a meeting April 15. (Photo courtesy Lloyd DeGrane)
Feeling that elected officials have betrayed them in the battle over piles of petroleum coke on the Southeast Side of Chicago, residents have vowed to take the fight to the streets and into their own hands.
In unseasonably frigid temperatures at a local park Tuesday evening, they discussed a march planned for April 26, ongoing protests and the idea of boycotting BP, whose Whiting, Indiana refinery is the source of the “petcoke” piling up along the Calumet River.
Activism by local residents catapulted the petcoke piles into national prominence last fall, with Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local Alderman John Pope and other elected officials promising to crack down on petcoke storage by companies including Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX.
In February, Emanuel and Pope announced an ordinance that would have prevented the expansion of petcoke storage and imposed requirements on existing piles.