Petroleum's Coke Problem Plagues Chicago

Petroleum coke or petcoke, similar to coal, is a nasty though salable byproduct of the oil refining process. Produced from refining tar sands crude in Indiana refineries, it is stored in huge piles in Chicago, blowing dust in the Southeast Side.

"Crude oil from Canada's tar sands is providing a booming business for American refineries, but residents of one Chicago neighborhood complain that a byproduct of that business has become a health hazard. They want towering mounds of a dusty substance known as petroleum coke, or petcoke, moved out of the city," explains NPR's "Morning Edition" host, David Greene, in his introduction to the story (listen here).

"Residents on Chicago's far southeast side have been complaining for months about dust from mountainous piles of the high sulfur, high carbon petcoke stored on three open air sites in the neighborhood," states Cheryl Corley, NPR's Chicago correspondent.

The petcoke stored in Chicago comes from a BP plant just across the state border in Whiting, Indiana. It produces 2,000 tons of petcoke a day and it will nearly triple that amount after expanding its plant to process more oil from Canada's tar sands.

"The state attorney general has filed lawsuits charging companies with pollution violations; the U.S. EPA will be installing monitors," states Corley. The main health concern is inhaling the coke dusk, explains Chicago's public health commissioner, Bechara Choucair

"Responding to months of public outrage about black dust clouds swirling off uncovered piles along the Calumet River [one of the nation's most polluted rivers], Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled new regulations Thursday that would require large storage terminals in the city to fully enclose petroleum coke, coal and other bulk materials," write Michael Hawthrone and John Byrne in the Chicago Tribune.

OK, we know this stuff is nasty and a health hazard, but exactly what is it?

From the petcoke industry: "Petroleum coke is a byproduct of the Coker refinery process which upgrades fuel oil by heating it and cracking it to higher valued gasoline, jet and diesel components..."

From Oil Change International, "a research, communication, and advocacy organization focused on exposing the true costs of fossil fuels and facilitating the coming transition towards clean energy":

Petcoke is like coal, but dirtier. Petcoke looks and acts like coal, but it has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal.

• 15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen can end up as petcoke, depending on the upgrading and refining process used.  [Executive Summary, "Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands (PDF)"]

Back to NPR - the last word goes to Josh Mogerman with the National Resources Defense Council, who warns that "as more refineries in the Midwest process Canadian tar sands, other communities are likely to face the same problems."

This is why the debate over all of these other pipelines that are popping up to move more and more Canadian tar sands through the United States for export, these are essential for us to discuss so that we don't have these big black piles showing up in neighborhoods across the country.

Don't forget the rail lines, Josh!

Full Story: Chicago Moves To Limit Petroleum Coke Storage

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