PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday August 5th, 2015, 4:03pm

Petcoke Battle Continues On Chicago's Southeast Side

Progress Illinois recaps the latest news involving the petcoke issue on Chicago's Southeast Side.

Chicago Southeast Side residents and environmentalists have won major victories in the battle over petcoke, but they aren't done fighting just yet.

They are awaiting a key decision from the city that will determine how much of the oil refining byproduct can move through a Southeast Side petcoke facility operated by KCBX Terminals Company (KCBX). 

Opponents of petcoke -- which is being stored on Chicago's Southeast Side along the banks of the Calumet River -- want the city to set a zero annual "throughput" rate, which would prevent the material from moving through KCBX's site. Such a decision would essentially force the facility to cease operations, explained Tom Shepherd with the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force, a leading group in the local fight against petcoke, a material commonly used as a fuel source in power plants.

"We'd like to see this operation close down," Shepherd said.

Shepherd argues that KCBX has thus far been unable to "guarantee that they can operate in a clean fashion without having [petcoke] dust issues."

"Maybe they're going to try to prove us otherwise, but at this point in time we've made it very clear in letters and petitions to the alderman and city that we are demanding that they come up with a zero throughput regulation" on KCBX, he said.

At issue is KCBX's south petcoke terminal, located at 108th Street and Burley Avenue. In February, KCBX announced plans to transition that petcoke terminal from a storage to transfer facility, with the conversion expected to be completed by June 9, 2016. 

After that date, KCBX's south site cannot have uncovered outdoor piles of petcoke under a city order.

That city order stems from new Chicago petcoke rules enacted last year, under which petcoke facility operators have until 2016 to cover their piles of the substance. The regulations were prompted by environmental and health concerns raised by Southeast Side residents over the petcoke dust blowing into their neighborhoods.

"By next summer there will be no petroleum coke or coal piles at our south terminal, as the city's rules require," KCBX spokesman Jake Reint said in a statement to Progress Illinois. "And while a year of air monitoring data near our terminals shows that KCBX is in compliance with all applicable clean air rules and regulations, removing the piles will further decrease potential air emissions at the terminal by more than 90 percent."

KCBX, which is controlled by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, operates the Southeast Side's remaining petcoke facility. Until more recently, KCBX operated a north terminal in the area near 100th Street and Commercial Avenue. 

In a win for petcoke opponents, KCBX ceased operations at its north terminal in June as a result of the city's new petcoke regulations. The site is in its final decommissioning phase, and the company says it has no immediate plans for the property.

Although Shepherd said his group is "very pleased" that one of KCBX's sites has ceased operations, he noted that the local community is still being impacted by petcoke dust from KCBX's south facility as it waits for the company to cover its piles.

"We are still experiencing particulate matter in the air these days, especially on the windy days," he said.

Currently, KCBX has a state permit allowing it to store up to 11 million tons of petcoke per year. Under a Chicago ordinance, the city had a March deadline to set a limit on how much petcoke KCBX could move in and out of its facility per year.

A Chicago Department of Public Health spokeswoman did not directly answer questions about the annual throughput issue regarding KCBX's south site. Instead, the department issued this statement to Progress Illinois:

Bowing to pressure from the Emanuel administration and neighborhood advocates KCBX North facility shut down operations earlier this year, leaving only one remaining petcoke/coal transloading facility on Chicago's Southeast Side. On June 30, 2015, the city issued an order that requires the KCBX South facility to stop storing petcoke outdoors by June 9, 2016. From implementing the toughest regulations in the country to taking petcoke operators to court for violating the rules, Mayor Emanuel's message to petcoke operators has been clear: clean up or shut down.

The Southeast Side Environmental Task Force and the Natural Resources Defense Council are calling on the city "take the final step of completely eliminating petcoke from the Southeast Side."

"Just because the piles are going to disappear, doesn't mean the problem is fixed," the groups said in a joint statement last week. "Out of sight is not out of mind in this case because the burden will not be lifted as long as constant boat, barge, train and truck traffic from an industrial petcoke transfer site brings health and quality of life impacts to the area. The neighbors are calling for a zero annual throughput rate, and we think it makes sense, too."

KCBX issued a letter to the Southeast Side community in May detailing its safeguards against petcoke dust and what its new south terminal operations will involve next summer. 

"Going forward our south terminal will operate without product piles," reads the letter from KCBX's terminal manager Mike Estadt. "Rather than transferring some of the product from railcars to the ground, then to barges and vessels, all of the product will be transferred directly from rail to vessels and barges via the existing covered conveyor system, which is already compliant with the city's rules. We no longer plan to use trucks for inbound or outbound shipments as a regular part of our business after the piles are removed.

"We also will continue to follow loading practices that are consistent with the city's rules," the letter notes. "These practices include using covered conveyors and keeping the product damp. Removing the product piles limits the services we are able to provide our customers, but we hope operating this way will allow us to stay in business and continue contributing to the local economy and our community."

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