Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday moved to require companies that store petroleum coke in Illinois to fully enclose the refinery byproduct and take more aggressive measures to tamp down lung-damaging dust.
Mirroring rules that Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed last month for Chicago, the policy changes outlined by Quinn would impose tough statewide restrictions on an offshoot of the oil industry that is rapidly growing throughout the Midwest.
Quinn invoked his authority to adopt emergency rules that within the next month will mandate dust-suppression systems at any site in Illinois where petroleum coke is stored. Owners of the storage terminals also will be required to take additional steps to prevent storm runoff from washing into nearby waterways.
The governor also proposed that mounds of petroleum coke, coal and other bulk materials should be enclosed within the next two years, a measure that would need approval from the Illinois Pollution Control Board. The structures would be equipped with pollution controls to keep dust from blowing into surrounding areas, according to a summary provided by the governor's office.
“We need to make sure the health and safety of people come first,” Quinn said at a news conference outside a storage terminal on Chicago's Southeast Side. “No side of Illinois should be a dumping ground.”
The rules outlined by Quinn are the latest response to public outrage about gritty black clouds of dust blowing off uncovered mounds of petroleum coke and coal stored at three sites along the Calumet River just south of the Chicago Skyway Bridge.
Since the Tribune and other local media drew attention to the problem in October, storage terminal operators have faced lawsuits, administrative complaints and proposed legal restrictions from Emanuel, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state EPA, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago aldermen and members of Congress. Neighbors also have filed private lawsuits in state and federal court.
Regulators and elected officials are stepping in as a BP refinery in nearby Whiting, Ind., more than triples its output of petroleum coke, or petcoke, to 2.2 million tons a year. All the petcoke produced there is shipped across the border to a pair of Chicago sites owned by KCBX Terminals, a company controlled by industrialists Charles and David Koch.
BP is among several oil companies generating more petcoke at Midwest refineries as they process more heavy oil from the tar sands region of Alberta. Some of the high-carbon, high-sulfur material is burned in coal-fired power plants and cement kilns in the U.S., but most is exported to China, Mexico and other countries with more lenient environmental laws, according to federal records.
KCBX said it has spent $30 million upgrading its storage terminal on Burley Avenue between 108th and 111th streets, including $10 million for new dust-suppression equipment. The company is willing to enclose its petcoke piles but opposes some other requirements Quinn and Emanuel propose, including a provision in city regulations that would force storage terminals to suspend operations when wind speed exceeds 15 mph.
“We want to do the right thing,” said Jake Reint, a KCBX spokesman. “But we're not sure if these rules will allow us to operate anywhere.”
It is unclear whether dust problems exist at other petcoke storage sites in Illinois. The Illinois EPA could not immediately provide a list of other facilities permitted to store petroleum coke.
Business interests accused Quinn of overreaching by proposing statewide rules.
“A lot of employers are concerned that they will become ensnared in new costly and unnecessary regulations with little to no benefit to nearby air quality,” said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Energy Council.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, question whether any regulations could be stringent enough to prevent dust problems in densely populated neighborhoods.
“We're happy the governor and the mayor are taking notice and trying to do something about these piles,” said Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “But the community wants them gone for good.”