Petroleum coke piles along the Calumet River in Chicago in October. (Photo by Josh Mogerman via Creative Commons)
Petroleum coke piles along the Calumet River in Chicago in October. (Photo by Josh Mogerman via Creative Commons)
Petroleum coke piles along the Calumet River in Chicago in October. (Photo by Josh Mogerman via Creative Commons)

Petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” is still a problem in Chicago despite city regulations, and it could quickly become a problem in other parts of the state if there are no limits or rules on storage of the toxic powdery byproduct of oil refining.

That’s the message of groups that sent a letter to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) on June 11, decrying the agency’s decision not to pursue making such statewide rules.

In January 2014, the IEPA had asked the Illinois Pollution Control Board for permission to make emergency rules regarding the storage of petcoke and other bulk materials in the state.

The move was sparked by controversy over petcoke storage on Chicago’s Southeast Side, including by the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals. In asking for rules the IEPA cited fugitive particulate matter air emissions and run-off from petcoke storage piles into water.

At the time the Illinois Pollution Control Board denied the IEPA the authority to make an emergency rule, but said “the rules governing bulk terminal operations for petcoke and coal could be improved,” and urged the IEPA to go ahead with a standard rule-making procedure.

A docket was opened and over the following months the IEPA told the pollution control board it was conducting outreach and meetings with stakeholders. But, as the pollution control board indicated in its April 16 final opinion, the IEPA repeatedly asked for stays of the proceedings and appeared to be making little progress. In January the board warned the IEPA that the docket could be closed if a rule wasn’t proposed within 90 days.

In April, the IEPA informed the board that it would not pursue new rules on bulk storage, stating simply that: “The Agency has updated the new administration regarding this matter. Further, the Agency has considered the effect of the City of Chicago’s recent promulgation of an ordinance addressing petcoke-related operations in the City, as well as pending litigation related to petcoke activity in the City.”

The groups called the IEPA’s decision “unreasonable and contrary to the public interest.” The letter indicated that Chicago’s regulations do not do enough to curb petcoke pollution, and that Chicago regulations do nothing to protect residents outside the city. The letter also said they do not consider the new administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner to be “an excuse” not to move forward with the rules.

“This is a health problem, regardless of who’s sitting in Springfield,” said Rachel Granneman, associate attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the lead signers of the letter. “IEPA has the responsibility to communities to protect them from this health threat. We don’t think that’s changed in any way.”

The IEPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Calling for prevention

While petcoke so far has not been an issue in Illinois outside Chicago, environmental and health advocates note that extensive petcoke storage could easily happen in other parts of the state. That’s especially likely given the city regulations prohibiting new petcoke storage and placing limits on existing facilities.

“It’s just unconscionable to think Illinois EPA had enough concern to call for emergency rules last year but now is essentially saying the city took care of the problem for the entire state?” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, which signed the letter. “That just doesn’t make any sense at all. I just don’t understand why the Illinois EPA now thinks that the rest of the state doesn’t deserve the same protections people in Chicago are getting.”

Chicago-area industrial waterways, including the Calumet River, which is the artery for the KCBX facility, also run outside Chicago city limits. There are also locations along rail lines or rivers including the Mississippi River that could be convenient for storing petcoke.

Advocates say state rules are imperative to pre-empt situations like that which played out in Chicago. Granneman said it is ironic that the IEPA cited lawsuits by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan regarding petcoke as a reason state rules are not needed. Rather, the lawsuits are evidence that rules are needed to prevent such situations elsewhere in the future, she said.

“You can have lawsuits, but that’s after the fact, just dealing with that specific issue at that specific location,” said Granneman. “You really need very specific prescriptive regulations dealing with how wet the coke has to be, what to do to shut it down if the wind picks up. There aren’t these types of regulation in place [statewide]. We don’t want to have the whack-a-mole situation” dealing with problems once they arise.

KCBX spokesman Jake Reint said state rules are not necessary.

“For the products we handle at KCBX, we continue to believe further regulation isn’t necessary given what we know about the effectiveness of the existing requirements and our own bulk material handling practices,” he said.

Other companies and trade associations representing coal, oil, shipping, chemicals and manufacturing also opposed state rules on bulk storage, which would affect other commodities along with petcoke.

Chicago regulations not enough

Local residents and advocacy groups say state rules on petcoke are also needed for Chicago, because they don’t believe the city’s regulations are strict enough or being enforced enough to adequately protect residents.

KCBX was granted some variances to rules issued by the city health department. And company officials have repeatedly said they cannot meet a city deadline of June 2016 for enclosing petcoke piles. The company had essentially been in a standoff with city officials over the matter until just before February elections where petcoke was a campaign issue; then KCBX promised to remove petcoke piles by the deadline.

Reint said that is still the plan.

“By next summer there will be no petroleum coke or coal piles at either of our terminals, as the city’s rules require,” he said.

But given the company’s statements and record in the past, residents are not convinced KCBX will keep its promise. Meanwhile they are also worried that even if KCBX eventually builds an enclosure, serious air pollution could still occur if high volumes are delivered on barges and rail cars, which do not have to be covered. The letter also points to problems in recent months, despite KCBX’s investments in dust suppression.

“Even with the City of Chicago regulations in effect, facilities in Chicago are still failing to comply with national air pollution standards that US EPA set to protect public health,” said the June 11 letter, whose signers included the Southeast Chicago Coalition to Ban Petcoke, State Representative Barbara Flynn-Curie, the Sierra Club Illinois, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Blacks in Green, the National Nurses United labor union and other community and regional organizations.

The letter noted:

“As recently as February 14, 2015, the 24-hour average concentration of particulate matter less than ten micrometers in diameter (PM10) at the southeast monitoring site at KCBX’s North Terminal was 175 micrograms per cubic meter, while the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM10 is 154 micrograms per cubic meter.2 The City of Chicago regulations are unable to ensure compliance with national standards; they certainly provide no acceptable basis to forgo state regulations.”

Reint countered that the company’s monitoring and soil testing show that the company is not causing pollution.

In January, the City Council passed an ordinance ordering the Department of Planning and Development to set limits on how much petcoke or coal can be passed through a facility. The ordinance included a deadline of March 31 for the limits, but so far none have been set. A Department of Planning and Development spokesman did not respond to requests for comment or information.

Residents say this apparently missed deadline is among the reasons they don’t trust the city administration to effectively regulate petcoke, despite tough talk from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other officials. And if powerful politicians like Emanuel don’t do enough to crack down on companies that store petcoke, they ask how residents in low-income and/or rural areas without such political clout will fare.

“Other smaller local governments where petcoke is or might be stored may be bamboozled or threatened into forgoing local health protections by the powerful corporations in this business,” said Urbaszewski. “Some may not even have the ability to set strong local rules to protect their own residents. People living in Illinois should be protected from corporate actions that put their health at risk, no matter where they live in the state.”

ELPC, NRDC and other signers of the letter to the IEPA are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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