Emanuel: Pet coke handlers 'not wanted' in Chicago

February 12, 2014

Photo courtesy of Ban Pet Coke Chicago
Petroleum coke is seen loaded on barges from KCBX Terminal’s facility along the Calumet River. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to severely restrict the handling of pet coke in the city.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday that he will propose an ordinance concerning pet coke at next month’s City Council meeting. The goal is to make it difficult for the handlers of the petroleum by-product to operate within the city.

By doing so, Emanuel is taking direct aim at KCBX Terminals Inc., located along the Calumet River on the Southeast side, a longtime industrial area surrounded by mostly low income minority residents.

The firm has been under heavy scrutiny from residents and politicians since last summer when high winds caused the dust-like petroleum coke to blow into nearby homes.

“Through the regulations we’re going to put in, it’s going to be very expensive to operate here and therefore they are going to choose to leave,” Emanuel told WBEZ on Wednesday. “We’re going to make sure the ordinance puts up a ‘not wanted’ sign in the City of Chicago as it relates to pet coke.”

The proposed ordinance would prohibit new pet coke, coke, and coal facilities from opening in the City of Chicago and ban expansions of existing facilities. If approved, it would prevent any new or expanded pet coke operations, including processing, transporting, storing or handling of the material.

This would have a direct impact on KCBX which has a contract to handle thousands of tons of pet coke trucked in daily from BP’s Refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

The amount KCBX receives from BP could increase threefold since a modernization project at the Whiting plant recently installed a new coker that will ramp up production from 2,000 tons of pet coke daily to 6,000 tons a day.

Emanuel says he’s pushing for the ordinance because the dust-like pet coke prevents residents on Chicago’s far southeast side from enjoying life outdoors. That was the concern late last August when high winds caused much of the ash-like pet coke to blow into people’s yards.

“You’re sitting in the backyard having a picnic, you get up and come back and your plate is black. And it’s a sense that people could not live in their own neighborhood without inhaling this product or it being all over their clothes or all over their food. And that’s just not how people are supposed to live in the City of Chicago,” Emanuel said.

Even with the ordinance, Emanuel says the city is still industry friendly.

“You can manufacture, you can build, you can do all the things you want to do here in the City of Chicago. And, we have companies that are thriving, just like the Ford plant, not too far from there, but they are good corporate citizens,” Emanuel said. “That’s what I’m looking for, somebody who wants to create jobs and be a part of the community in all aspects. Dumping an environmental product that damages our health is not something that we want to welcome.”

KCBX Terminals says it has invested millions in upgrades to its facility along the Calumet River that will eliminate pet coke from becoming airborne. The system was not in place during the incident last August.

Company spokesman Jake Rient says KCBX is reviewing the ordinance and trying to determine the implications on its operations, which employs about 40 people.

“As a company, we are always concerned when we hear mayors say they don’t want to see business invest in their city. We don’t think that’s the right message,” Rient said. “We’re really committed to to doing the right thing and we’ve been open to working with the city and address our neighbors’ concerns.”

Meanwhile, the Illinois Manufacturers Association says Emanuel’s proposal is unnecessary and will cost jobs.

"This ordinance is a solution in search of a problem. Unfortunately, the approach outlined today will cost Chicago jobs and revenue at a time when they are struggling economically.  The Illinois Manufacturers' Association does not believe that there is any justification for banning or arbitrarily limiting the processing, storage, transport or handling of petcoke in Chicago.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, petcoke is not hazardous – in fact, it is a valued commodity that has broad application in the manufacturing sector,” said Mark Denzler, vice president and COO of the IMA.

The issue of pet coke has lead to a lawsuit filed by residents living near the plant and others filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

A lawsuit brought by Madigan forced Hammond, Indiana-based Beemsterboer Slag Company, which has operations on the Southeast side, to agree to stop taking in any more pet coke from KCBX Terminals. KCBX Terminals is owned by the wealthy conservative Koch Brothers.

Tom Shepherd of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, has a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Emanuel’s proposal.

“We’ve been trying to sqeeze KCBX out, kick them out and legislate them out or whatever it would take. We would be very happy if that were the result,” Shepherd said. “We’re unsure if this ordinance will be open to challenge. We would have liked to see an ordinance to banish pet coke from the city. We’re still hoping to see the pet coke gone.”

Despite it being six months since the first major episode of flying pet coke, Shepherd said the substance is still turning up in and around the neighborhood.

Last month, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn tried and failed to implement a statewide emergency order to severely restrict the handling and storage of pet coke at facilities around the state.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board rejected his emergency plea. Board members say the Governor’s new guidelines will go through the regular channels of consideration. 

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