Illinois pollution board rules against new limits on petcoke

Chicago residents say petroleum coke piles cause dust storms and health issues in the city's southeast

This Aug. 30, 2013 cell-phone image provided by Chicago resident Anthony Martinez shows a dust cloud rising from piles of petroleum coke during a storm near residences on the southeast side of Chicago.
Anthony Martinez, via AP

Chicago environmentalists are reeling after an Illinois government panel rejected proposed rules to regulate piles of petroleum coke along Chicago’s shipping channels, which nearby residents and activists say can cause environmental and health problems.

Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had filed a request with the Illinois Pollution Control Board to craft emergency rules to regulate the piles of petroleum coke, also known as petcoke. Petcoke is a powder-like byproduct of crude oil production that’s often shipped overseas for use in energy production or in concrete or brick construction.

Residents of Chicago’s southeast, where the petcoke is located, have been petitioning the government for years to do something about the piles, which they say blanket their neighborhood with noxious dust on windy days. Their complaints gained attention from city and state officials in August, after petcoke was documented by residents blowing into a neighborhood and park.

Quinn proposed last week that the byproducts’ owners be required to immediately store their petcoke, use water-suppression systems to capture dust and take measures to prevent water runoff.

But on Thursday the state pollution board ruled 4–0 that Quinn and the EPA had failed to show there was an imminent threat to public health posed by the piles, and that the governor and his allies would therefore have to go through the normal rulemaking process of passing ordinances or laws to deal with the petcoke.

That decision sent petcoke opponents back to the drawing board.

“There was so much opposition from industry that they basically considered industry over people,” said Peggy Salazar, the executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “The Illinois EPA has (alleged) violations. They saw a need for action. We’re just surprised the Pollution Control Board would ignore all that.”

Several large oil and gas corporations, and even coal corporations that don’t own petcoke facilities, petitioned the pollution board to not implement Quinn’s suggestions, arguing that the rules were a regulatory overreach. They said the industry had already taken measures to ensure the piles weren’t polluting the surrounding area. 

“There’ve been no additional problems since that one incident in August,” said Mark Denzler, vice president and COO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “And then suddenly the governor came forward with these rules that will cost an extreme amount of money for an industry that’s been operating for 70 years with no problem.”

The largest petcoke piles in Chicago are operated by a company owned by billionaire brothers and megadonors to conservative causes Charles and David Koch. The Kochs’ high profile has perhaps brought more national attention to the controversy surrounding petcoke, but that attention hasn’t turned into a resolution in Chicago for those who oppose the piles.

Petcoke is nearly pure carbon, a byproduct of oil drilling. Its production and subsequent export increased dramatically in the last few decades as domestic oil production ramped up and as Canada’s oil sands were developed. In 1992, about 79 million barrels were exported from the U.S. By 2012, the number was closer to 185 million, according to the Energy Information Administration.

As petcoke piles have risen along waterways across the U.S., so has activism responding to health concerns of residents living near them.

Petcoke dust can contain tiny particles — smaller than 2.5 microns — that can travel deeply into lungs, causing a host of health problems, reports the federal EPA.

While particulate-related health issues in southeast Chicago haven’t been directly attributed to the petcoke piles, residents and experts say the neighborhood’s air was already in bad shape before the piles, and could potentially get worse because of them.

“The highest recorded levels of P.M2.5 (the technical term for particles under 2.5 microns) are at the George Washington High School, about four blocks away from the biggest petcoke piles,” said Brian Urbaszewski, the director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago. “Those size particles are associated with heart attacks, strokes, lung cancers and premature death.” 

According to Urbaszewski, the levels recorded by air monitors near the high school don’t necessarily account for the times when dust from the petcoke piles gusts over the community for a short period, and then recedes.

Residents and activists say that when those dust storms come, they don’t need numbers to tell them something needs to change. 

“The dust from those piles, it just blankets the community,” said Salazar. “We really just want the petcoke out of here.”

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