Chicago Petcoke: Alderman's shameful switcheroo undercuts his neighbors, the Mayor and the entire City

Thumbnail image for petcoke sunset.JPG

Yesterday, a hearing on Chicago’s proposed ordinance to ban new and expanded petroleum coke operations gave us a good example of why this town often deserves its international reputation for political shenanigans.

The City Council's Zoning Committee had set a hearing to move on the ordinance that would significantly restrict transportation, disposal and use of petroleum coke in our communities. Based on weeks of discussions with the City authorities, and the stated goals of the Mayor, everyone thought they were coming to a hearing in the City Council’s zoning committee to weigh in on new rules on the handling and usage of the ashy oil refining waste (as well as coal) which has appeared in massive mounds on the Southeast Side.

But instead, John Pope, sponsor of the ordinance and Alderman of the 10th Ward where the piles reside, tried to pull a switcheroo.

As the hearing began, he gave a lovely speech highlighting the need to address the problem in his ward, protect residents and address the environmental burden from these piles. And then he introduced a substitute ordinance that nobody in the room had seen (while distributing only three printed copies to the committee members) that proposed to undercut all those lovely points about morality and the public interest.

The ordinance everyone was expecting (as it had been semi-public since March) was designed to address the petroleum coke blight that is growing in Alderman Pope’s ward, and which sits in the midst of his neighbors’ yards and parks. The proposed ordinance everyone was expecting would have put the kibosh on potential new or expanded facilities intending to hold or use petroleum coke (as well as big coal piles, which have also been a problem in the area). It was also intended to be the first step in what Rahm Emanuel has publicly stated would be his effort to drive these operations out of town. And the City’s law department had been taking advice from groups around town on how to make the ordinance tougher and more enforceable. 

The ordinance was supposed to address companies that handle and companies that use petcoke and coal, prohibiting new such facilities and expansions of existing handlers and users. But the Alderman’s new version eliminates the prohibition on petcoke and coal users. That means big facilities that burn the stuff, like cement manufacturers and dirty energy producers, are free to open and expand across many city districts.

Given recent maneuvering in the area, it is likely that he has a couple of users clearly in mind: a cement plant and the formerly aborted Leucadia coal gasification plant.

Back in 2012, Pope’s constituents were battling against a massive industrial plant that would have been plopped right next door to what is now the biggest yard holding Chicago’s problem petcoke piles (amazing coincidence, eh?). That plant would have burned petcoke to cook coal (and petcoke) to produce synthetic natural gas and power. Its backers called it clean… But similar examples from other states show a range of impacts from such facilities. Among these impacts are the dust and other disruption from receiving and using upwards of several million tons of petcoke and coal. Huge volumes of this stuff being trucked and burned in the area, with all the traffic, emissions and pollution that come with it, make the proponents’ claims to be “clean” highly specious.

The Governor basically labeled it a boondoggle, which is why he used the power of his veto to defeat Leucadia’s scheme to soak consumers across the state who would have been forced to purchase the gas for the next 30 years to make the project work.

Pope’s move yesterday seems designed to revive the project that neighbors were loudly opposing. And by courting companies like Leucadia, this ordinance would be like setting out a welcome mat for more petcoke. It is a signal that perhaps the Alderman wants nothing more than to revive the massive economic threat to Illinois taxpayers who will bear the burden of increased air pollution and increased energy prices from expensive fake-gas (or diesel, or whatever else these guys try to peddle). 

And it opens the door to expansion of the blight. While the oil refining waste has largely been seen along the banks of the Calumet River on the Southeast Side, it is important to remember that there are plenty of other potential destinations in town. In our testimony at the hearing, my colleague Meleah Geertsma noted that under current law, facilities in almost any of Chicago’s “Planned Manufacturing Districts” have the right to bring big piles of petcoke and coal. The City has 15 of these zones, which include places like the Clybourn Corridor, Goose Island, the Chicago/Halsted Corridor, Pilsen and West Pullman.

We’ve got a problem with that. It undercuts the local residents’ hard work (and the many groups trying to help them). And it seriously undercuts the strong work that the City has been doing to cut its significant carbon footprint (don’t forget, this stuff is more carbon-intensive than coal). Does a green city open its doors to one of the most carbon-intensive sources of fuel being burned all over town? That’s the potential end result of this ill-advised alternative ordinance.

Hopefully Mayor Emanuel has a problem with that too. He has significant power in the City Council and has said that this ordinance was the first step in booting this dirty business out of town—something he touted before TV cameras and reporters a few weeks back. Pope’s 180 undercuts what Emanuel says he wants. Rather than getting petcoke out of town, it institutionalizes it—cements it in place on the Southeast Side—and threatens to expand the problem.

That's a slap in the face the mayor shouldn't accept.  

Yesterday’s hearing ended with massive pushback from everyone on-hand against the switcheroo ordinance, forcing it to be deferred until the next zoning committee meeting. This gives the Mayor a month to flex his muscles and wrangle this mess. The Alderman should be ashamed to subvert the process and treat his constituents in such callous fashion; but it is Mr. Emanuel who bears the ultimate responsibility here.

Chicagoans should not accept oil refining waste in their neighborhoods. And they shouldn’t accept this sort of ludicrous, undemocratic action from their elected officials. Both feed a reputation that does this city no good and, to paraphrase Southeast Side resident Jim Kinney’s testimony during the hearing, make Chicago “look like a bunch of chumps.” 


Petcoke Sunset: petcoke piles at KCBX South on Chicago's Southeast Side image by jmogs via Flickr.