Environmentalists and Southeast Side Chicagoans are furious over recent changes made to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed ordinance to crack down on petcoke, claiming the revisions have weakened the legislation.
The mayor’s measure, initially introduced at March’s city council meeting, originally sought to ban new petcoke facilities from opening in the city and prohibit existing sites from expanding. But at the council’s zoning committee meeting Tuesday, the public learned the pending petcoke ordinance, co-sponsored by Alds. Ed Burke (14th) and John Pope (10th), has since been revised.
“That blindsided us,” Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force told Progress Illinois after the nearly two-hour committee hearing. “How can they provide us with information, an ordinance to review and evaluate … then when we get here to testify and speak [on] the ordinance, they give us something totally different than what we did all that work on? How can they do that? How is that allowed?”
The council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards agreed to defer consideration of the measure until its April 24 meeting to allow the public more time to review the substitute ordinance.
“I think there may be a few more items we can add,” Pope said before asking the committee to defer the vote.
Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining that can pollute the air and water. The material, which is commonly used as a fuel source in power plants, is being stored in large piles along the banks of the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side. The petcoke mounds were transported there from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, which is the same facility that malfunctioned last week and spilled up to 1,638 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan.
The substitute ordinance presented Tuesday would still prohibit new petcoke facilities from setting up shop in Chicago and bar existing sites from growing. However, the ordinance does not apply to manufacturing facilities that receive a construction permit and a “new source review” approval from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Under this exception, use of petcoke or coal bulk material is only allowed on the manufacturing site, meaning the substance could not leave the facility.
The added provision could pave the way for facilities to burn or use petcoke as fuel, Salazar argued.
“Those are exactly the kind of facilities we don’t want in our communities. They’re opening the door to that,” she stressed. “Also, if they open the door to those facilities to utilize the petcoke, they’ll have more buyers, so now that means more petcoke is going to be coming through our community … There’s no way we can accept that.”
The BP Whiting facility already produces approximately 700,000 tons of petcoke annually, and that amount is expected to triple to more than 2 million tons in the coming year due to an increased flow of oil from Canada and recent upgrades made at the refinery.
The pending petcoke ordinance is not the only city effort to regulate the gritty substance. The Chicago Department of Public Health issued its finalized regulations meant to put a cap on emissions that come from petcoke last month.
The regulations require petcoke operators 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. Under the regulations, companies would have to install monitors that can detect dust emissions, and trucks carrying the material would have to be covered, among other requirements.
But Southeast Side residents living near the uncovered petcoke piles, who have experienced black clouds of the material blowing into their neighborhoods, say the regulations are not strict enough. Though community members expressed gratitude that lawmakers in Chicago and other levels of government have moved to take action on the issue, they reiterated their desire for an outright petcoke ban in the city.
“From our experience (the facilities) have dust suppression systems in place that are ineffective. That’s why we’re here complaining,” Salazar stressed. “We get the dust no matter what. The regulations will not require them to enclose the facilities for two years, so for two years we’re going to have to contend.”
Back in November, Burke and Pope proposed legislation that would have imposed a citywide petcoke ban. The ordinance came in response to growing public outcry and a joint lawsuit filed last year by four Chicago families against companies that house petcoke in the city. Emanuel, however, rejected a full petcoke ban and instead pushed city officials to go the regulatory route.
At Tuesday’s hearing, city law department officials said it is unlikely that an ordinance completely banning petcoke would survive a legal challenge.
“They used the word unlikely. They never said impossible,” Salazar pointed out. “So why aren’t we trying to do something that’s unlikely? Why aren’t the residents of the Southeast Side worth taking that chance, making that effort?”
Pope, who represents the area where petcoke is being stored, contends that the newest measure is the “most aggressive, progressive ordinance that there is.”
“I still have little faith that a total ban, the removal of this material from the city, specifically the 10th Ward, will ever happen,” the alderman said at the hearing. “So our next best bet is to … take these aggressive measures to implement the ordinance … However, I think there is some testimony that we need to consider.”
One of the firms that stockpiles petcoke in the city is KCBX Terminals Company, which is controlled by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed two lawsuits against KCBX over alleged air and water pollution and waste violations.
Beemsterboer Slag Corp, another firm that runs a petcoke facility on the Southeast Side, agreed in December to remove piles of the gritty substance from Chicago and no longer accept, handle or store the oil refining byproduct. The agreement followed a lawsuit filed against the company by the city of Chicago and Madigan.
Meanwhile, owners and operators of petcoke facilities would have to provide quarterly reports to the city containing data on the amount of material that comes in and out of the sites each month under the substitute ordinance.
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, the Illinois Petroleum Council, the Illinois Coal Association and the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group strongly oppose the mayor’s ordinance, calling it “anti-business.”
“The fact is there is no science that shows petcoke and coal storage is any more or less of an issue for public health than piles of salt, gravel, sand, grain or dirt,” Tom Wolf with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce told committee members. “They are all non-toxic, important products and byproducts that are stored and transported throughout the city and can all create dust. Dust is dust, and regulations exist to ensure companies keep the dust from getting into places it shouldn’t.”
But Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, said coal and petcoke dust “is dangerous to the lungs and affects breathing.”
“Not necessarily because of what coal or petcoke dust contains, but because of the small size of the particles generated,” he said, adding that these tiny particles are associated with various health impacts such as asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and premature death.
Before the zoning committee agreed to put off its vote, Olga Bautista with the Southeast Side Coalition Against Petcoke implored council members to “think about all the little children” who have to use oxygen masks on the Southeast Side due to asthma.
“There’s so much asthma and respiratory problems in the infants that are being born in Southeast Chicago,” she stressed. “If you haven’t been down there, if you haven’t been able to talk to the moms who are dealing with this situation everyday, then you might not be ready to vote today.”
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has also outlined statewide regulations for the management of petcoke. The proposed rules, however, have to go through the formal rule-making process because the Illinois Pollution Control Board voted down the governor's proposal for emergency petcoke regulations in late January.