With petcoke out in Chicago, Indiana groups worry it’s heading their way | WBEZ
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With petcoke out in Chicago, Indiana groups worry it's heading their way

Tom Shepherd was celebrating on Chicago’s South Side Thursday but it had nothing to do with President Barack Obama’s arrival to declare the historic Pullman area a National Monument.

Shepherd, president of the Southeast Environmental Council, was cautiously optimistic about the news that the area’s ongoing petcoke problem is one step closer to being resolved.

“Well, at this point, it’s still kind of early in the game,” Shepherd told WBEZ. “We’ve just been getting this information. It’s been coming in pretty feverishly over the last couple of days. We’ve heard from the city, we’ve heard from the company.”

On Thursday, the Koch Brothers-owned KCBX Terminals Inc. announced that it was shuttering its North Terminal on the Southeast side within the next five months.

That means it will no longer accept petcoke on that site but has no immediate plans for the property.

The company also announced that it will take steps to eliminate petcoke piles at its nearby South Terminal on Burley Avenue by June 2016, a deadline imposed by the City of Chicago.

Shepherd says the company will continue accepting petcoke from other nearby refineries so the issue is not dead.

“The BP announcement is going to put a dent in their operations but it will still take product from two other refineries in the area. So, that operation is going to continue,” Shepherd said. “But it’s still a big win.”

But that win could eventually be Northwest Indiana’s loss.

Kim Ferraro, lead attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council, says she’s worried all that petcoke could end up dumped in struggling cities such as Gary, Hammond and East Chicago.

“We may see some effort to put petcoke on those sites. And certainly it’s a concern for communities here who are already dealing with so much exposure to harmful pollution,” Ferraro said.

All this comes a day after BP announced that it will stop shipping petcoke from its massive Whiting, Indiana, refinery to KCBX by this summer.

“Based on a number of considerations, BP has made the business decision to store the majority of its petroleum coke produced by the Whiting Refinery at a facility outside of Illinois beginning in the second half of 2015. A final decision has not yet been made on where this material will be stored in the future,” BP spokesman Scott Dean said in a statement. “If necessary for business reasons, BP may consider using limited Illinois-based storage options on a short-term basis if those options are compliant with state and local regulations.”

Earlier this week, the City of Chicago’s Department of Public Health announced it would not give KCBX more time to comply with a two-year requirement to enclose coal and petroleum coke piles.  KCBX wanted another 14 months.

But KCBX President Dave Severson says the company wants to stay in Chicago.

“We remain committed to Chicago and we are going to work within the city’s new rules to try to stay in business,” Severson said in a written statement. “We expect we’ll have to make some adjustments to the services we provide our customers but we hope operating this way will allow us to remain in business and give us the time we need to determine whether we can proceed with the enclosure project.”

It’s been a long struggle for residents on the Southeast side who live in the shadow of the petcoke storage sites. In late August 2013, a huge dust-storm covered nearby homes and businesses with the ash-like substance, a byproduct in the refining of crude oil.

Residents have been concerned about the long-term health effects of breathing in petcoke dust.

Activists say even if KCBX covers its piles, petcoke can still become airborne and fall into the lake as it’s transported via train or truck from Whiting, Indiana.  

Meanwhile, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association continues to defend the handling of petcoke.

“Petcoke is a valuable commodity used in a wide range of manufacturing applications including cement, paint, steel and glass,” Mark Denzler, vice president of the IMA, stated to WBEZ. “It’s extremely important to keep in mind that the United States Environmental Protection Agency does not classify petcoke as a hazardous substance and an August 2014 analysis found no traces of the material in local furnace filters. Elected officials need to focus on creating good jobs and economic development.”

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