Faced with public outrage about gritty black dust blowing through Chicago’s Southeast Side, Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked of forcing towering mounds of petroleum coke out of Chicago and outlawing new piles with costly regulations.
But the fine print of a zoning ordinance unveiled Tuesday by the Emanuel administration opens the door for greater use of the high-sulfur, high-carbon refinery byproduct in the city.
Under changes outlined at a hearing of the City Council’s powerful zoning committee, companies would be allowed to store and burn petroleum coke in Chicago if “consumed onsite as part of a manufacturing process.” The special exemption also would allow companies to burn stockpiles of coal.
The changes appear to be a step back from Emanuel’s tough rhetoric about petroleum coke, also known as petcoke. In February, the mayor told local television and radio stations he wanted to drive petcoke operators out of town.
“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 radio at the time. “We’re going to make sure the ordinance puts up a ‘not wanted’ sign in the City of Chicago as it relates to petcoke.”
New city regulations require the operators of three storage terminals on the Calumet River to enclose petcoke and coal within two years and take additional steps to curb lung-damaging dust. The proposed zoning ordinance would ban those facilities from expanding, but the exemption would clear the way for more black piles to start popping up around the city.
“We do not want to preclude companies that use petcoke in their manufacturing processes from locating in the city,” said Bill McCaffery, an Emanuel spokesman.
To take advantage of the proposed exemption, companies would be required to have permits from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. One firm that appears to fit that criteria is Universal Cement, an arm of Mokena-based Ozinga Bros. that is permitted to use petcoke and coal to fuel a planned cement kiln at 117th Street and Torrence Avenue.
Rex Jameson, a company spokesman, said neither Universal nor Ozinga requested a zoning exemption.
Neighborhood groups fear the exemption also could help revive plans for another Southeast Side facility that would turn petroleum coke and coal into natural gas. Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed legislation in 2012 that would have required Chicago-area ratepayers to subsidize the proposed Leucadia National Corp. gasification plant at 115th Street and Burley Avenue, but community activists are convinced the project isn’t dead.
“I’m against any of that petroleum coke in the neighborhood,” said Jim Kinney, a former steelworker and Southeast Side resident. “It makes us look like a bunch of chumps.”
Billed by the Emanuel administration as a key part of the “toughest petcoke regulations in the nation,” the zoning ordinance is the latest response to complaints about petcoke in Chicago.
KCBX Terminals, a company controlled by industrialists Charles and David Koch, already is defending a lawsuit filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan that accuses the company of violating air pollution laws at its facility off Burley Avenue between 108th and 111th streets. Another Madigan lawsuit urges a Cook County judge to cite KCBX for violating water quality and open dumping laws by failing to prevent petcoke and coal from washing into the Calumet River at its 100th Street storage terminal.
A separate state order required Beemsterboer Slag Co. to remove petcoke and coal from its 106th Street storage terminal.
KCBX has a contract to store petcoke generated by the BP refinery just over the Indiana border in Whiting. To process more heavy Canadian tar sands oil, BP recently completed an overhaul of the refinery that will more than triple its output of petcoke to 2.2 million tons a year – a figure Emanuel has frequently cited when vowing to crack down on the dusty piles.
“It’s unfortunate the city is undercutting the mayor’s very clear statements,” said Henry Henderson, a former Chicago environment commissioner who heads the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is a retreat.”
Several Southeast Side residents told zoning committee members they won’t be satisfied until petcoke is banned outright in Chicago, a measure that city attorneys said likely would not survive a court challenge.
After opponents said they weren’t given enough time to review the Emanuel administration’s proposed changes, the committee opted to delay a vote until next month.