Chicago Moves To Limit Petroleum Coke Storage

Crude oil from Canada's tar sands is booming business for refineries but residents of a Chicago neighborhood charge a byproduct called petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a nuisance and health hazard. They want towering mounds of the dusty substance moved out of the city. Chicago officials have reached a deal with one company requiring them to do so.

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Crude oil from Canada's tar sands is providing a booming business for American refineries, but residents of one Chicago neighborhood complain that a byproduct of that business has become a health hazard. They want towering mounds of a dusty substance known as petroleum coke, or petcoke, moved out of the city. And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, Chicago is now requiring one company storing the substance to do just that.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Residents on Chicago's far southeast side have been complaining for months about dust from mountainous piles of the high sulfur, high carbon petcoke stored on three open air sites in the neighborhood. Peggy Salazar with the Southeast Environmental Task Force used to live near one of those sites.

PEGGY SALAZAR: I used to get dust on a regular basis, in the summer and spring when the wind blows, on my siding, on my lawn furniture, in my food if were eating outdoors.

CORLEY: The state attorney general has filed lawsuits charging companies with pollution violations; the U.S. EPA will be installing monitors. But a month ago, frustrated residents who'd had enough chanted their dissatisfaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Move the piles. Move the piles. Move the piles. Move the piles...

CORLEY: Their wish to move those piles will be granted, at least partially, because of an agreement between the city of Chicago and one of the two companies that store petcoke along the Calumet River. Beemsterboer Corporation does not have a required permit and will have to ship the material it stores elsewhere. Even so, Chicago will still be a repository and that does not please Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: The fact is, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois did not have their regulatory guard up for decades.

CORLEY: The petcoke stored in Chicago comes from a BP plant just across the state border in Whiting, Indiana. It produces 2,000 tons of petcoke a day and it will nearly triple that amount after expanding its plant to process more oil from Canada's tar sands. KCBX Terminal, a firm operated by the industrialist Koch Brothers, operates the other two storage sites along the Calumet River. Again, Mayor Emanuel.

EMANUEL: And when the Whiting facility was being built, Indiana put in place a set of regulations to deal with petcoke. The state of Illinois and the city Chicago did not and the companies took advantage of that regulatory loophole and that actually then affected both the environment and the public health of our community and our city.

CORLEY: Chicago's public health commissioner, Bechara Choucair, has proposed a series of regulations that companies would have to adhere to, similar to ones established in California, which would require companies to store petcoke in enclosed facilities.

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Inhaling petcoke really is the main concern that we have.

CORLEY: He says particularly for people with allergies and asthma. KCBX says it's studying the regulations but it's worked to be a good neighbor and recently invested $10 million in a new dust suppression system. Josh Mogerman with the National Resources Defense Council says as more refineries in the Midwest process Canadian tar sands, other communities are likely to face the same problems.

JOSH MOGERMAN: This is why the debate over all of these other pipelines that are popping up to move more and more Canadian tar sands through the United States for export, these are essential for us to discuss so that we don't have these big black piles showing up in neighborhoods across the country.

CORLEY: Residents on Chicago's far southeast side say the city's effort to regulate how petcoke can be stored is a good first step, but what they'd prefer is a complete ban. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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