Southeast Side residents fuming over pet coke ash

Who's responsible for the mountain of black dust on the Southeast Side? BP says it's not to blame.

October 25, 2013

WBEZ/Michael Puente
Black Mountains of Chicago's Southeast Side.

Updated 4:30 p.m. CST

People living on Chicago’s far Southeast Side are used to living with factories and the environmental hazards that come with them. But now some residents have a new concern: a thick black, powdery dust known as “pet coke.”

Carrying signs and chanting “What do we want? MOVE THE PILE!” more than a hundred residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side and South Deering neighborhoods showed up at the Wolfe Park fieldhouse Thursday evening. They were seeking answers about the huge mountains of pet coke that recently started piling up on barges along the Calumet River. A byproduct of crude oil refining, the powdery petroleum coke can potentially be blown into the air.

Residents complained of ash covering their homes and said that children who played outside some days would come in scratching their eyes. Other residents pointed to one particularly bad incident of airborne pet coke following a big thunderstorm in late August. Pictures of the storm show black particles darkening the sky.

The neighborhood of working class poor, many of whom are Latino and black, has long been home to heavy industry. And large piles of black ash aren’t uncommon says resident Kate Koval.

But she says what’s happening now is on a different scale.

“It’s really getting everywhere. People are worried about their health. And now we learn we’re going to get a lot more of it,” said Koval, who is a native of nearby Whiting, Indiana. Koval is organizing informational meetings for the community with assistance from the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Whiting is home to one of the largest oil refineries in America. Owned by BP, the company is nearing the completion of a $4 billion, 5-year modernization of the 100 year-old refinery.

Once done, BP will switch from processing mostly sweet crude oil from the Mideast to much dirtier tar sands oil from Canada. BP officials say the refinery is following all provisions of the Clean Air Act and adhering to Indiana environmental laws, which would require it to cover the piles if it were on its large property in Whiting. The company has invested millions in an indoor processing facility to handle its pet coke byproduct. It has enough room to store collected pet coke for up to a week.

But the large black mounds of pet coke being stored along the Calumet River aren't ultimately BP’s responsibility.

BP spokesman Scott Dean confirmed that the oil giant contracts with KCBX Terminal to store much of its pet coke.

"In the energy industry, you need to rely on third party terminal operations for storage. Just like an oil field, just because demand slows down, you don’t shut down the oil field," Dean told WBEZ on Friday. "You expect your third party contractors to obey all local rules and regulations. As far as I can tell, they are. It's their facility. they are responsible for the operations of it."

Dean says the company now produces about 2,000 tons of pet coke every day, but will soon be allowed to process up to 6,000 tons per day under a new permit from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Some of it is stored on its Whiting facility until it is trucked to KCBX Terminal sites. He says pe tcoke and coal ash from local steel mills or coal-fired generating stations have been stored at KCBX for years.

"We've used those storage facilities in the past. That area has been used for coal-ash storage. This is nothing new," Dean said.

Dean says it only deals with KCBX Terminal for pet coke storage, not Beemsterboer Slag Corp., adjacent to KCBX. But KCBX may have a contract with Beemsterboer to store some of the petcoke on its facility.

KCBX is owned by Koch Industries, the large privately-owned company run by Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers are known for supporting conservative political causes that question climate change.

Neither company made officials available at last night’s meeting to answer residents’ questions, but Dean says BP was not invited.

In a statement, KCBX spokesman Paul Baltzer said that the company "has handled various bulk products, including pet coke in Chicago, for more than 20 years." As for the specific site along the Calumet River, the statement continued: "We are in the final stages of constructing more than $10 million in upgrades, including improvements to the dust suppression capabilities."

Alderman John Pope, D-10th, says he hasn't had a chance to meet with the firm in recent weeks to see what can be done to minimize the blowing of the ash. Pope says he knew the ash would be coming to the neighborhood but didn’t know in what quantities or that there would be such problems.

“I knew that there was going to be an increase,” Pope, who attended the Thursday meeting, said. “If the material can come and it can be contained, I don’t think it will be an issue. But can it be contained? The idea is to minimize it. Apparently, there’s too much of it right now.”

Dean says the pet coke is still a viable product and often shipped to China or Mexico. In some places, it's used as a coal substitute for power generation.

"There is a domestic market for it but increasingly it's going overseas by barge," Dean said.

He says BP trucks its pet coke to KCBX Terminal. However, he cannot confirm that photos showing large mounds of the "coal ash-like" product are from BP since other companies may ship similiar ash to KCBX Terminal.

"I can’t tell if it's ours and I don’t think anyone can. We do have a contract, we are sending our pet coke to that facility. I’m not going to play coy with you; some of that pet coke is ours," Dean said. "We’re the big generator of this coal-like product right now. I have no reason to not believe that a lot of it is ours."

Josh Mogerman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council of Chicago, also attended the meeting. Mogerman says pet coke dust isn’t just a problem for the Southeast side.

“This is an problem that we’re going to have to deal with nationally. We’re using more and more of this tar sands crude. This problem is going to pop up in a lot of neighborhoods around the country,” Mogerman said.

But for residents of the Southeast Side, the problem may get worse before it gets better.

“BP hasn’t even turned on its (new) coker yet. There’s going to be 6,000 tons of this stuff streaming out of the refinery everyday," Mogerman said. "It’s incumbent upon BP to figure out to figure out how to deal with this problem. It’s incumbent upon the Koch brothers and KCBX to make sure the products they are moving does not impact public health. There’s enough blame to go around.”

In the meantime, residents are documenting the ongoing pet coke issues and have been in contact with the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

IEPA spokesman Andrew Mason said in a statement: "Current Illinois environmental regulations already require operations like KCBX to have fugitive dust control programs in place and IEPA has been working with the company since it took over the facility last year to ensure its plan is strengthened."

Natalie Bauer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General, says the office is investigating the complaints.