Petcoke: Why it’s here, where it’s going, and how it affects our city

As you may have seen in the news, various government and community entities throughout Chicago have mobilized around the controversial storage of petroleum coke, or “petcoke”, on the Southeast side. This ashy material is a byproduct of the refinement process turning Canadian oil into gasoline, which is transported to Chicago from BP’s Whiting, IN refinery just over the Illinois-Indiana state border.

One man’s waste is another man’s cheap industrial fuel

When burned, petcoke can be used as a fuel source, but in the process harmful greenhouse gases and soot are released into the atmosphere. This limits its potential for use in areas with higher emission standards (like the U.S.) but other countries, such as China, import petcoke for industrial use. Since it is being produced faster than it can be exported, petcoke is commonly moved to an offsite storage facility before being shipped abroad.

Location, location, location

Ideally located for shipping purposes, various facilities along the Calumet River serve as temporary storage for petcoke. Calling the storage “temporary”, however, gives the impression that the open-air piles will come and go. The BP refinery is currently undergoing a renovation that will increase the facility’s production of petcoke from 700,000 to 2.2 million tons per year, making it the second largest producer of petcoke in the world. Needless to say, these uncovered, “temporary” piles are expected to grow.

Community members and government officials are taking a stand

For the past several years, communities near the petcoke storage facilities have struggled with the black petcoke dust blowing around their neighborhoods and a related fear of respiratory illness. Only recently have organizations like the Southeast Environmental Task Force found active partners in the state and local government. With the help of these government officials, measures are being taken to grant the Chicago Department of Health greater authority to prevent dangerous emissions and to fully enclose (if not remove) the riverside petcoke storage facilities in question.

Friends of the Chicago River stands by efforts to improve the river system

While this issue is being viewed primarily as one of air quality, it is impossible to ignore the effects the location of these storage facilities have and may have on water quality and river use. Friends of the Chicago River cares deeply about community health and the accessibility of public space. We believe that any action which so blatantly deters outdoor activity within city limits should be prohibited. For these reasons, Friends strongly supports the development of policies targeting the regulation of petcoke, specifically the enclosure of petcoke storage facilities and the enforcement of proper permitting.