Public Pressure Forces Tar Sands Waste Operator Out Of Chicago

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

In this Oct. 25, 2013 photo, petroleum coke, or petcoke, is stored on barges on the Calumet River near the Chicago Skyway Bridge in Chicago. The grainy black byproduct of oil refining has been piling up along Midwest shipping channels and sparking a new wave of environmental concerns. The volume and size of petcoke piles has grown sharply, especially in the Midwest.

An operator in charge of storing petroleum coke, a dirty byproduct of tar sands refining, has announced it’s leaving the city of Chicago, and taking the black, dusty piles with it.

Beemsterboer Slag Corp., which has been storing petcoke at a storage facility by the Calumet River, has closed the facility after facing increasing pressure from city officials and residents.

“The property has been sold,” company president Alan Beemsterboer said of the Calumet Transload Facility. “Doing business in the city is increasingly difficult.”

At the end of April, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that banned new petcoke storage facilities from opening and prevented existing storage facilities from expanding. In addition, earlier this month, Beemsterboer was fined $50,000 for violating an order to remove petcoke from a different site.

The move is good news for Chicago residents, many of whom have gotten increasingly fed up with the piles of petcoke. If left uncovered, stores of petroleum coke create black dust that can blow into residents’ homes and aggravate breathing conditions like asthma.

Beemsterboer isn’t the only company storing petcoke in Chigaco, however. KCBX Terminals, which is a much larger company than Beemsterboer, still stores petcoke in Chicago, and was the target of protests earlier this month.

“Beemsterboer was always the little guy, compared to KCBX,” Olga Bautista from the Southeast Chicago Coalition to Ban Petcoke said. “We need to drive KCBX out. It’s an uphill battle, but we don’t have a choice. We have a 50 percent higher cancer rate than the rest of the city, and the highest asthma rate in the city of Chicago. We’re defending ourselves from toxic industry, because we’ve got nothing to lose. We’re already in a terrible situation.”

KCBX, which is controlled by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch, has threatened legal action if Chicago doesn’t allow the company an extra two years to cover up its piles of petcoke. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel imposed a deadline of 2016 for companies to cover any uncovered petcoke piles they’re storing in Chicago, but KCBX wants to be able to wait until 2018 to cover its piles. It also wants to be able to have larger piles than the city’s new limits — 45 feet high rather than the 30-foot limit imposed by the city.

As the Chicago Tribune reports, Chicago residents already aren’t pleased about the city’s choice to give companies two years to comply with the new rules on covering petcoke, let alone four years.

“The mayor promised to make it tougher for them to operate, not easier,” Peggy Salazar, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force said. “Four more years of dust is just going to make the situation worse for us.”

And unlike Beemsterboer, KCBX doesn’t appear to be scaling down its operations in Chicago — or in the rest of Illinois and the Midwest. Instead, the company is ramping up petcoke storage. Since petcoke is used as fuel in other countries (it’s also burned in Michigan’s coal-fired power plants) the company buys petcoke from oil refineries and sells it on the international market.

Chicago isn’t the only city to suffer the effects of petcoke storage, either. Detroit residents and environmental groups have also waged battles against petcoke storage in their city, and have spoken out about bills like the one sponsored by state Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R) that aimed to label petcoke a renewable energy source in Michigan.