Federal Agency: Petcoke Facility Health Hazard to Residents

C. Reiss Coal Company, Green Bay, Wisconsin
Credit: Google Earth

A new federal public health agency report on the health risks associated with petroleum coke marks the three-year anniversary of the black clouds of dust that swept into Chicago’s Southeast Side neighborhoods from sites owned by Koch affiliate KCBX and a local company, causing a public uproar—and vindicates the community’s concerns with this refinery waste pollution. The study concludes that KCBX’s facilities, with their open piles, adversely impacted air quality in the community and posed a public health hazard to nearby residents—both healthy individuals and those who are more sensitive to air pollution. These findings are important not only to the community surrounding KCBX's sites, but to all communities with similar coke and coal handling facilities in their midst, such as Green Bay and Newport News. Moreover, the study underestimates the toll on communities from this refinery waste and coal dust, as it focuses on one set of impacts and is not a comprehensive risk assessment, as discussed in more detail below.

In late August, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) published a study of the health risks from KCBX’s petcoke and coal handling facilities near Lake Calumet on the Southeast Side of Chicago. This KCBX study was done at the request of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Robin Kelly, in whose district the KCBX facilities are located. Sen. Durbin also partnered with Rep. Kelly and Michigan Sen. Gary Peters (himself prompted by similar petcoke and coal problems in Detroit) last summer to introduce bills calling for a broader study of the health impacts of petcoke from production to end use, as well as an assessment of best practices for storing, transporting and managing petroleum coke. While the bills were not adopted into law, they brought the problems with petcoke to the national stage and highlighted the need to protect communities from the impacts of petcoke facilities and transport.

Here’s a breakdown of the new health study

Approach. The agency looks at health impacts to the population living near KCBX’s two coke and coal facilities from particulate matter or PM—small airborne particles that are associated with lung and heart problems, and even premature death—and cancer risks from airborne heavy metals like arsenic and vanadium, some of which are contained in petcoke dust in notable amounts. The study is based on a year of PM10 (also known as “coarse” particulate matter) data gathered by air monitors located around the perimeter of each facility, from February 2014 to January 2015 when both facilities were operating with huge outdoor piles. From this data, the agency assesses health risks from both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) exposures in light of several established thresholds for concern.

Impacted Population. The agency finds that the area within a 1-mile radius of the KCBX sites is densely populated, with nearly 60 percent of the population of minority background according to the 2010 census. Over 40 percent of the population consists of groups sensitive to air pollution, including young children, the elderly, and women of child-bearing age. (We looked at income levels around the sites as well, and found that median household incomes are well below those for the Greater Chicago area.) In other words, KCBX is located in the middle of communities that are particularly susceptible to the impacts of air pollution and have fewer financial resources to protect themselves against it and other sources of pollution.

Source of Air Pollution. The agency also concludes that “KCBX does adversely impact air quality in the community, and is the predominant source of vanadium, elemental carbon, organic carbon, and particulate matter (PM) measured at the monitor locations.” In other words, the company cannot point to other industrial companies in the area and claim no responsibility for air pollution and impacts on communities.

Lung and Heart Impacts. As the study sets forth, particle pollution is linked to “premature death, the exacerbation of asthma as well as respiratory and cardiovascular disease, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, and increased risk of heart attack. With respect to KCBX’s petcoke and coal facilities’ particle pollution, the agency concludes that “blown dust from the KCBX facility poses a public health hazard to residents living adjacent to the piles”—not only sensitive individuals like children, the elderly, women of childbearing age and people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, but even healthy individuals. The agency reaches this conclusion based on the high levels of PM10 measured by monitors over both the course of an hour and the course of a day. It evaluates these levels against emerging research on health impacts from short-term exposures to particle pollution, as well as what is generally known about how particles impact health and to U.S. and international standards for longer exposures.

Cancer Impacts. While the agency expresses less concern with potential cancer impacts near the sites, it does conclude that “breathing the combined levels of metals in air near KCBX” results in an increased risk of cancer and other non-cancer health impacts. However, it characterizes these increased risks as “low.” We disagree for two primary reasons.

  • First, 1 in a million increased cancer risk is a threshold regularly used to flag risks of concern. The KCBX study found a combined increased cancer risk from exposure to metals of 20 in 1,000,000 (or 2 in 100,000).
  • Second, in other major metropolitan areas in the U.S., 1 in 100,000 increased cancer risk is used as a critical risk threshold for air toxics from industrial facilities, triggering community notification. The increased cancer risk from metals  near the KCBX facilities reported in the study is twice this level.

The risk levels found in the study should raise concerns and trigger more investigation of air pollution sources (the study concludes that KCBX is not a significant source of some of the more dominant heavy metals and points to other nearby facilities). A more complete assessment of exposure to heavy metals and other harmful pollutants in the area is also needed given these increased risks. Regarding exposure, future studies should look at deposition of heavy metals around the sites, including in backyards and playgrounds where kids play, and accumulation in dust that people bring into their homes—not just risks associated with breathing metals in the air.

What the study doesn’t include

Along with looking at only one pathway of exposure for cancer risks, the study also omits health impacts from PAHs (for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which naturally occur in fossil fuels like crude oil and coal, and are associated with cancer and reproductive impacts. Earlier this year, a new study came out linking stockpiles of petroleum coke in the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada, to elevated levels of PAHs in the surrounding area. According to the author, about 90 per cent of the cancer-linked PAHs were coming from pet coke at the sites they analyzed, closest to oil sands mines.

Suncor petcoke piles in Alberta, Canada
Credit: Jason Woodhead via Flickr

Nor does the study look comprehensively at impacts from trucks, barges and railcars serving the sites. Uncovered and leaky vehicles are known sources of coke and coal dust and toxic diesel pollution, and are often poorly controlled by regulations and companies. Many communities have voiced anger and concerns over coke and coal dust blowing from uncovered and leaking railcars, including tribes and more recently in conjunction with export terminals on the West Coast. NRDC is seeking to protect waterways against coal dust from railcars in the courts. This past fall, new research out of the University of Washington found about twice as much harmful fine particulate pollution from coal trains as from regular diesel engines, with some coal trains acting as “super-dusters” emitting visible plumes of dark dust. Such impacts from vehicles are not limited to areas around facilities they serve, but stretch out along transportation routes. In addition, the federal Surface Transportation Board and rail company BNSF have acknowledged that coal dust compromises tracks, increasing safety concerns over derailments and collisions (just what we need with explosive oil trains traveling the tracks).

Uncovered coal train in Kansas City, Missouri
Credit: Righteous Grant G. via Flickr

In sum, communities surrounding KCBX had good reason to rise up against health hazards posed by the facilities over the past several years. They and neighboring communities continue to have legitimate concerns about impacts from dust and diesel generated by vehicles serving the sites, now that the outdoor piles are gone (and questions remain about other impacts from the new “direct transfer” model being used at KCBX, with coke and coal moving directly from railcars to barges and boats). Communities across the country that lack protections from similar coke and coal handling facilities deserve better. It’s our hope that Chicago can serve as a rallying cry for needed changes nationwide, and itself step up to eliminate any remaining impacts from these dirty facilities.

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, NRDC Senior Scientist, assisted in writing this blog. 

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