City Council acts to limit pet coke storage in Chicago

By Sarah Kramer

The Chicago City Council acted Wednesday to limit the amount of petroleum coke entering the city and set daily storage limits on the Southeast Side facilities. The ordinance calls for these limits to be set by the City Council by March 31.

“Passing this ordinance is the new step in our continuing process to make clear that no one gets to make profits at the expense of the health, welfare and quality of life of Chicagoans,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement.

Petroleum coke, commonly referred to as pet coke, is a byproduct of the oil refining process. KCBX Terminals Co. currently operates two storage facilities in Chicago: the North Terminal, between 100th and 106th streets, and the South Terminal, between 108th and 112th streets. Both terminals sit on the banks of the Calumet River.

The city has been embroiled in a conflict for more than a year between Southeast Side activists, who say the piles of black dust pose a health hazard to their community, and KCBX , part of Koch Industries, which handles more than 2 million tons of pet coke through the Southeast Side each year.

Olga Bautista, Southeast Side activist and aldermanic candidate for the10th Ward, said the ordinance is a “step forward,” but it doesn’t go far enough.

“Ultimately, we’re calling for a ban on pet coke because it should not be allowed to be stored and transported near such a densely populated community,” Bautista said. Bautista has been calling for a moratorium on pet coke storage and transport through the Southeast Side.

KCBX handles thousands of tons of pet coke transported daily from the BP Refinery in Whiting, Ind. Pet coke is sold overseas to be burned in conjunction with coal to generate electricity at power plants. The refinery’s processing of tar sands has led to a tripling of the amount of pet coke coming through Chicago at the KCBX terminals, said Josh Mogerman of the National Resources Defense Council in an interview last Friday.

“KCBX disagrees that throughput limits are necessary for our terminal because our significant investments in state-of-the-art dust suppression systems have proven effective,” said company spokesman Jake Reint in a statement. “However, we are prepared to work with the city to ensure that any limits imposed on KCBX are reasonable and allow us to continue our long history of operations in Chicago.”

Neighbors of KCBX, owned by the industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch, are most concerned about the dust blowing off the 30-foot piles into the area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that particulate matter breached levels dangerous to human health at the fence line twice in 2014.

“Southeast Siders don’t think these dusty operations should be anywhere near their homes, schools and parks. They want them gone and we agree. Short of that, putting strong limits on how much of this stuff can move through the neighborhood will help lessen the problem,” according to Henry Hendersen, midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A second company operating a pet coke facility, Beemsterboer Slag Corp., decided to end operations in Chicago last year. The City Council has required KCBX to enclose its pet coke storage facilities in the next two years. The company has asked for an extension of that deadline.

Photo at top: Sarah Kramer/Medill