PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday April 29th, 2014, 6:00pm

Chicago Petcoke Ordinance Passes Key Hurdle

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s revised ordinance to regulate petcoke stored in Chicago cleared the city council's zoning committee Tuesday, despite an outpouring of objection from residents who want nothing short of a complete, citywide ban on the material. Progress Illinois was there for the hearing.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s revised ordinance to regulate petcoke stored in Chicago cleared the council's zoning committee Tuesday, despite an outpouring of objection from residents who want nothing short of a complete, citywide ban on the material.

The measure to ban new petcoke facilities from opening in the city and prevent existing sites from expanding will go before the full Chicago City Council for consideration Wednesday, said Ald. Daniel Solis (25th), who chairs the zoning committee. The amended ordinance passed in committee by a voice vote, and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) was the only member to vote 'no'.

Petcoke, which is a thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining that can pollute the air and water, is being stored in large mounds along the banks of the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side. Residents who live near the three Southeast Side petcoke storage facilities — two operated by North Dakota-based KCBX Terminals Company and one maintained by Indiana-based Beemsterboer Slag Corp. —  say dust from the uncovered piles is blowing into their communities, coating their homes and making them sick.

"The message was clearly not heard at the community meetings by our alderman," East Side resident Fred Sosinski told committee members ahead of the vote. "We asked to ban petcoke. We want this out of our neighborhood. This is a health issue ... This ordinance is insulting to the people of the Southeast Side." 

Another Southeast Side resident, Ann Joseph, lives about a mile away from the petcoke piles, and her home is "inundated with this black, powdery pollution."

"There has been talk about confining this, or perhaps wetting it down. Wetting it down is certainly not a solution. The drain off from the water ... goes into the soil and into the river. The trucks that come through pollute our area. We can accept nothing less than a ban on the petcoke." 

On April 1, the council's zoning committee held a hearing on a previous version of the proposal, which Southeast Side residents and environmentalists said did not go far enough. Following feedback from stakeholders, the ordinance is now more strict, said Ald. John Pope (10th), who co-sponsored the ordinance and represents the area where petcoke is housed. 

In addition to the pending petcoke ordinance, the Chicago Department of Public Health has regulations, which were finalized last month, designed to limit emissions that come from petcoke. Under the regulations, petcoke operators have to fully enclose their storage piles within a two-year period and submit monthly progress reports to the city as they work to comply with the public health department’s health and safety measures. 

"I am proud of this ordinance," Pope added. "Coupled with the rules and regulations, which are already in effect, this legislation represents the most aggressive proactive measures taken by any municipality throughout the country." 

While the measure approved in committee prohibits new petcoke facilities from setting up shop in Chicago and bars existing sites from growing, it does carve out an exception for cement manufacturing facilities that have obtained a construction permit and a “new source review” approval from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Under the previous plan, this exemption would have applied to all manufacturing facilities.

The amended ordinance also requires facility operators to report the amount of coke and coal material that goes in and out of their factories. The ordinance also tasks the commissioner of the city's Department of Planning and Development with monitoring this data, according to the ordinance. The commissioner has to issue a report to the city council no later than three years after the ordinance's passage recommending whether additional material-use limitations are needed to protect the public health and interest.

Petcoke is commonly used as a fuel source in power plants and is a component in the aluminum, steel and cement making process. The material also often gets shipped to markets overseas in places like China, India and Mexico. The petcoke mounds piled along the banks of the Calumet River were largely transported there from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, which is the same facility that malfunctioned last month and spilled an estimated 39 barrels of oil into Lake Michigan. 

As previously mentioned, KCBX is one company that houses petcoke on the Southeast Side. The company is a subsidiary of the privately held Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries Inc., a large American multinational corporation run by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. KCBX's spokesman Jake Reint issued this statement following the committee vote:

KCBX will continue to ensure that our operations remain compliant with all local, state and federal regulations. We believe that this zoning ordinance as proposed allows us to continue to operate. The city’s Department of Public Health has regulations above and beyond this ordinance, and we are still evaluating our ability to comply with those new rules. KCBX has the utmost respect for our neighbors and our employees, so we are committed to doing the right thing, and this includes our willingness to consider building a structure to enclose the coal and petroleum coke at our facility.

Tom Shepherd from the Southeast Environmental Task Force said the petcoke piles on the Southeast Side are growing rapidly and are at least six stories tall. In addition to petcoke dust getting into people's eyes and lungs, Shepherd noted that property owners in the area have given up on having swimming pools because the material contaminates the water. And on windy days, children cannot play outside at nearby playgrounds or baseball fields. Environmental activists in the area have requested that a health analysis be done to determine the effects petcoke may have on area residents.

"The people really want the petcoke out, and it is a hazard and two years is too long to wait for this to be covered up," he stressed. "If it is a hazard, and I think that the ordinance talks about that, if it is, then there should be an immediate moratorium. We're asking for a complete ban. But if we don't have a complete ban, we are at least asking for a moratorium until these studies have been conducted ... to know if (petcoke) is harmful or not."

Before the vote, Fioretti said he thinks the ordinance does not go far enough because it does not address the "health, safety and welfare of our citizens." The alderman said the city should put in place "nothing short of a total ban." And if a full ban is not implemented, the city should require the petcoke piles to be enclosed within three to six months, as opposed to two years. 

"My 'no' vote is because we just dragged our feet. We responded to the big money interests, limited jobs," the alderman said, noting that he will vote against the measure at tomorrow's full council meeting. "And what did we achieve here? Not much. These people are suffering. Their kids are in the hospital ... They can't go out. They can't go in their swimming pools. They can't enjoy their quality of life."

Pope asked Christopher Norborg, director of state legislation at the city of Chicago's law department, about what it would mean legally for the city if aldermen outright banned petcoke facilities.

Norborg said the risk of litigation is high and the city's defense costs would be large. He explained that depriving facility operators from using petcoke on their land could be seen as a an "unconstitutional deprivation," and that legal theory "has some strength to it."

But Fioretti countered, saying petcoke facility operators are negatively impacting residents and property owners in the area.

"Think about what (the companies that store the petcoke) did to the quality of life. The property rights of every citizen in and around that is much more important than the few who come into this state to regulate and really adversely affect the citizens of this city," the alderman said.

If approved by the full city council on Wednesday, the ordinance would take effect 10 days following publication. Be sure to check back with Progress Illinois for our coverage of Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

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