A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Polluting ‘petcoke’ coming to a river near you?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 9, 10 or 11

People along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers could be forced to deal with filthy piles of “petcoke” and the health risks and blight that accompany them unless they or their representatives act.

It might be too late for the legislature, which adjourned from its spring session early Saturday morning on May 31 with a lot of unfinished business. Is it too late for everyday citizens?

“Petcoke” is petroleum coke, the powdery residue left after refining heavy tar sands oil, like that from Alberta, Canada. In Illinois, it is stored at two sites owned by KCBX Terminals, Inc. on the Calumet River on the Southeast side of Chicago.

“In a city that has long battled particulate-matter air pollution, the public outcry over the situation is forcing significant action,” said Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. If something isn’t done, “communities along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers could find petcoke piles in their back yards.”

The petcoke dumps in Illinois come from BP’s 1,400-acre Whiting, Ind., refinery, which ships it here by barge, trains or trucks. BP is expected to start producing 2.2 million tons of petcoke annually – three times its recent output – if higher expected amounts of the tar sands’ high-carbon, high-sulfur oil is brought to the Midwest, whether by truck or the Keystone XL pipeline.

Petcoke is used overseas as a cheap coal substitute where environmental safeguards are lax about the dirty fuel, and corporations are shipping it down Illinois’ rivers to the Gulf for export.

Meanwhile, the working class neighborhood by the Calumet River is coping with five-story piles of the oil-refining waste. After a dust storm last fall, area residents filed suit against KCBX, which is owned by the notorious Koch brothers, alleging that their corporation is contaminating people’s properties with air pollution.

David and Charles Koch, of course, are the multibillionaires who back extreme conservative groups that, among other things, challenge the science behind climate change and oppose solar power and many environmental regulations. Their brother William owns Oxbow, the country’s largest independent marketer for petcoke exporting.

This spring, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also sued, focusing on water pollution, and the City of Chicago started trying to locally regulate petcoke – requiring piles to be enclosed, prohibiting new petcoke projects and forcing existing piles to relocate.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is investigating.

A bill from the state Attorney General’s office introduced by Barbara Flynn Currie (D- Chicago) this winter would require petcoke corporations to install wind monitors and dust-suppression systems, prevent runoff, and enclose the mounds if they’re 5,000 feet away from communities.

Besides such minimum setbacks for coal and coke facilities, the bill would limit quantities of “fugitive dust” permitted from facilities; establish requirements for storage of coal and coke products; require permits for construction and operation of facilities; regulate the loading and unloading, paving and cleaning of facilities; and mandate monitoring and testing, record keeping and reporting to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to Currie, the bill’s 42 co-sponsors include Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), Jehan A. Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria) and Elaine Nekritz (D-Buffalo Grove).

The measure was referred to the Rules Committee in March, where it languishes.

In an election year, when too many lawmakers are focusing on getting votes instead of doing what’s best for the state, it’s questionable whether busy campaigns will permit a special session this summer. So, all along the rivers, watch for barges and new “developments” of heaps of filth.

[PICTURED: Photo of a petcoke pile along the Calumet River by Josh Mogerman from]

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