CN April 10, 2014


Those giant piles of black refinery ash, commonly know as petroleum coke or “pet-coke” that have been plaguing residents of Chicago’s southeast side apparently won’t be going away. At least not for a while.  But it didn’t seem that way a few weeks ago.

“Everybody was jumping over themselves,” says Tribune environment writer Michael Hawthorne. “Mayor Emanuel, Attorney General Madigan, congressmen, Senator Durbin, everybody was upset about these giant, dusty, black piles. So the Mayor talked very tough, organized some television interviews…and he talked very tough about how he was going to drive these companies out of the City of Chicago. He was very clear about what he wanted to do.”

So he introduced ordinances to enclose the piles. and he said the City was going to zone them, to make sure they don’t expand. And he made it clear the City wouldn’t allow any new ones.

But Hawthorne gives us an update. “Then the City Council has a zoning committee meeting last week, and they present this little handy piece of paper called a substitute ordinance.”

Substitute ordinances, especially ones nobody in the community knew were coming, usually aren’t introduced to make community protection stronger. This one was introduced by John Pope, the area’s Alderman. Again, Michael Hawthorne.

“Alderman Pope getting up and talking about this is the toughest pet-coke regulation in the country. Then you hear the fine print – oh, by the way, if you burn it in the City of Chicago, you can keep storing it in the City of Chicago. So essentially a giant loophole that you can drive one of these barges through, full of pet-coke.”

Community representatives were of course unhappy, and as of this week “Alderman Pope was forced to pull back, and they’re going to discuss this again later this month.”

But why this unexpected substitute? Did the Alderman decide at the last minute that pollution in his ward wasn’t such a bad thing?

“This is not the Alderman,” explains Hawthorne. “This is the Mayor’s office. They acknowledge that. This is the City. This is their substitute ordinance, they did this.  And it’s like anything else in the city. Nothing happens unless the Mayor wants it to happen, right?”

“What we’re seeing here,” he adds, “is the reality of the old part of the neighborhood. Steel was made, chemicals were made in that part of the city for a long time, and a lot of that went away. There’s been talk of transformation, but some people would rather keep the old ways.”

Complicating matters, says Henry Henderson, Midwest Director for NRDC (and founding commissioner of the City’s Department of Environment) is the fact that the State of Illinois had already issued a permit for the site that allowed storage of eleven million tons of pet-coke.

“It’s what one comes to expect in terms of what goes on on the southeast side – that this is an area that can be dumped on,” he says. “This is an area where the community can be ignored. And frankly it’s time for that to stop.”

So, as of today, this is the status. The pet-coke is coming from the BP Whiting refinery just across the border. At this point, that refinery is almost exclusively processing the heavy, gooey “tar sand oil” from Alberta. It’s what Henderson calls “the dirtiest fuel on earth”. The by-product of this intensive refining is the aforementioned petroleum coke. There’s no City ordinance to control the storage or movement of this product. And BP has just completed an upgrade that will allow the refinery to generate two million tons of petroleum coke every year.

Some have speculated that the reason the City is pulling back is that there are industries that want to burn this material here in Chicago. And journalist/author Kari Leydersen asks whether Mayor Emanuel might be favoring industries that say they’ll create jobs.

“Is it that the Mayor doesn’t want to do something that’s seen as anti-business in general?” she asks, explaining that two  operations may want to burn the stuff on the Southeast side. One is Ozinga, a concrete company that wants to build a processing plant, and the other is a facility that would burn pet-coke and coal to create a kind of artificial natural gas. “It’s my understanding that neither Ozinga or the coal gasification plant would do that much for the city in terms of jobs and taxes,” she  says. But it seems confounding. What really is the deeper motivation for the City pressing for this?”

Henderson, who has a long history of involvement with the southeast side, compares this battle with a decades-long fight over landfills in the area. “In 1990, the laws of Chicago were so lax, that it sucked waste activity into the city to the burden of communities…you have exactly the same thing happening today with the fossil-fuel industry here,” he explains.

Getting the Canadian tar-sand oil to American refineries requires delivery infrastructure, and the Keystone XL pipeline is considered vital to the process. Henderson doesn’t want it.

“It’s a pollution delivery system to the Great Lakes,” he tells us. “This is the sort of thing the President should be looking at when he’s thinking about this pipeline. Is this in the national interest?…This is the community where he began his public career. The people he sat across the table from. You can see the impact of this dirty fossil fuel coming here. The dirtiest fuel on earth – Canadian tar sands – creating a further dirty waste stream fetching up in peoples’ backyards and making it impossible to live where they want to live.”

And Leydersen adds that, no matter what, the pet-coke being created at Whiting will eventually find its way into the atmosphere. “Say this ordinance didn’t pass, but they still kept storing the pet-coke here. A lot of it’s being shipped to China and then being burned in China, so the carbon dioxide’s gonna come out somewhere regardless.”

Henderson ends the discussion on an upbeat note.

“We have the opportunity to invest in alternatives. The investment creates jobs. One of the largest, growing parts of the U.S. economy is clean energy. We need to stay focused on that rather than being amazed by the blank stare of the fossil fuel industry.”

UPDATE: We received the following comment from David Wisniewski, taking issue with this week’s discussion.

The round table discussion appeared to be nothing more than a platform for Mr. Henderson and the two other guests to “cherry pick” only the facts that greatly supported their position. I thought many chances were missed to ask some questions about the positions that Mr. Henderson holds. There are still a lot of industrial jobs in the area. The city had the comments from those businesses that employee people in the area and throughout the state on their website. Not once was Mr. Henderson asked about the severe impact such harsh regulations would have on those businesses or the current workers.

The discussion also talked about a subsidized fossil fuel industry or as Mr. Henderson put it a tax for a gasification plant. The green industry is even more heavily subsidized. There was a $90 billion dollar clean energy stimulus in 2009. While the amount of wind and solar has doubled in the last few years renewable energy jobs have not. Renewables are capital project and do not require much labor. Put up a windmill or some solar panels and for the next 25 years they will produce some energy for us. Outside of some occasional maintenance once they are up and running they are labor free.

Please view the link below. A solar plant was built on the southeast side in West Pullman. No break in energy rates for the residents. The local Alderman was not at all excited about the project because it created very few jobs, one full time to be exact and six other jobs for security, landscaping, and general maintenance. Oh and the utility company was banking a $50 million dollar stimulus loan guarantee from the department of energy.

I certainly hope my comments will be looked further into. Maybe you could do a show to point out our reliance on industrial industry and how important they are. It seems like environmentalists refuse to accept any balance with industry and are intent on playing the zero sum game. The media appears to only cover their side of the story and there sure seems to be some intellectual dishonesty from them.

Thanks again for taking my comments.


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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