Global climate change — December 8, 2013 at 9:55 am

Petcoke from Canadian tar sands piling up in another urban US city: Chicago


Funny how it’s never near a posh neighborhood of mansions…

Cloud of petcoke dust rises over Detroit in the summer of 2013

This past summer, thanks to the hue and cry from Democrats in Michigan as well as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a group owned by the notorious Koch brothers was forced to take their noxious, toxic piles of petcoke somewhere else. The giant piles of waste from the processing of Canadian tar sands bitumen were contaminating the city with dust laced with heavy metals. As it turns out, the piles appear to be being moved to Nova Scotia in what the New York Times called “something resembling a bottle return program“.

Meanwhile, more piles are accumulating in another large urban city. This time, it’s Chicago:

In July piles of petcoke made bi-national headlines as dark clouds swirled over the Detroit River by the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada. That petcoke was from the Marathon Detroit Oil refinery, which has expanded to process tar sands oil.

In August, Southeast Chicago residents saw similar clouds themselves. One local resident posted a photo on Facebook after an August 30 wind storm, showing a billowing thick black haze.

As in Detroit, the Chicago piles are part of the business empire of the Koch brothers, earning the nickname “PetKoch.” KCBX, an affiliate of Koch Carbon which is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, owns large parcels of land along the Calumet River. […]

Altogether, about a mile and a half of the Calumet River shoreline holds big black piles. On Beemsterboer’s land, next to an old General Mills grain elevator, the pile rises about five stories high, while more black grit fills barges moored in the river.

Locals say the amount of petcoke has skyrocketed as BP Whiting’s refinery just across the border in Indiana nears completion of a $3.8 billion upgrade to process more tar sands oil. Still in the works is the refinery’s new coker, which will be the second largest in the world and process 102,000 barrels of oil per day, creating petcoke as the tar sands are heated to 900 degrees F.

“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” said Southeast Environmental Task Force member Tom Shepherd, gazing at the piles from the 106th Street bridge on a recent afternoon. “It’s coming at a breathtaking rate.”

Here’s video of the cloud rolling through a Chicago neighborhood during a recent wind storm:

You can get a sense for the scope of the operation in this video from the Video Catalyst Project:

Like in Detroit, elected officials in Chicago are working to shut the petcoke operation down:

In an online photo gallery of neighborhood picnics and sunrises over Lake Michigan, an image of black dust blotting out the sky galvanized residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side to demand action against companies storing enormous mounds of petroleum coke along the Calumet River.

Spread through social media, the picture taken in late August near 109th Street and Buffalo Avenue helped revive long-standing concerns in the East Side and South Deering neighborhoods about the legacy of pollution from now-shuttered steel mills, blast furnaces and coke ovens that once dominated the area.

Elected officials and regulators eventually took notice of the anger and frustration. In the past month, the owners of three riverfront storage terminals have faced a steady stream of lawsuits, administrative complaints and proposed legal restrictions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state EPA, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the local alderman and members of Congress.

On Friday, Madigan and Emanuel filed a new lawsuit seeking to shut down the Beemsterboer Slag Co. site at 2900 E. 106th St. until its owners obtain new permits from state regulators. The attorney general and mayor also want Beemsterboer’s uncovered mountains of petcoke and coal removed until the company submits a plan to tamp down the dust.

During an inspection last month, the Illinois EPA discovered that Beemsterboer was only spraying water from a truck to prevent dust from swirling off its uncovered piles. The company had stopped using water cannons and other methods, according to the lawsuit.

“Beemsterboer’s failure to follow the environmental laws is a serious threat to the public health,” Madigan said. “The company must take action immediately to stop the air pollution from its illegal operations.”

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is asking residents to report incidents to his office:

The city of Chicago says it is cracking down on petroleum coke emissions after some residents say it’s contaminating their neighborhood.

Residents on the city’s Southeast Side say the chemical mixture also known as “petcoke” is coating their homes and property. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched a campaign to get residents to report pet coke problems.

There are mini-mountains of it. Petroleum coke – the high-sulfur residue left from the refining of crude oil. For years, “petcoke” has been piled for temporary storage in industrial yards along the Calumet River on Chicago’s Southeast Side – near the yards of neighborhoods where – when the winds whip up – residents are visited by clouds of “Petcoke” dust.

“If you happen to be outside, it’ll cover you and you’ll have this oily residue,” said resident Olga Bautista.

“If we wanted to have a barbeque, we had to wash everything down,” said Peggy Salazar.

Salazar lives three blocks from one of the petcoke storage sites, so the issue has been on her radar for years. But it’s taken on a heightened sense of urgency and reaction with much more petcoke destined for this area.

Petcoke from Koch brothers operations is becoming the environmental issue of our generation. When it’s burned, it releases more carbon and sulfur than coal. However, because it’s cheaper than natural gas, it’s highly profitable for Big Oil companies. As I reported yesterday, the influx of higher amounts of tar sands bitumen into the Midwest will increase the amount of petroleum crude that is transported on the Great Lakes — the world’s largest reserve of fresh water. An all of that new processing capability means more petcoke piles and their toxic dust clouds along the shores of the Great Lakes, typically in urban areas inhabited by poor people who lack political clout to stop it from happening.

The processing of petcoke is a huge step backwards for protecting our air from greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants. While technological advances are being made every day that will allow us to convert our economy to green, sustainable energy sources, Koch Industries and their affiliates are exploiting cheaper-but-dirtier sources of energy to compete and prevent clean energy from getting a foothold. And the people who pay the most direct price are the poor people living in the neighborhoods where harmful petcoke dust blows in the wind.