Nothing Says Love Like Petroleum Coke Dust

Thumbnail image for Frozen water sprinkler KCBX.jpg

Photo of iced over sprayer at KCBX's South site

Earlier this week, I summarized the recent flurry of activity around petroleum coke in Chicago. Now there's another sort of flurry to report - problematic levels of coarse particulate matter (a.k.a., PM10, an air pollutant that impacts the lungs and heart) at KCBX's Southeast Chicago sites. Again. This time on Valentine's Day, no less.

February 14 saw very cold temperatures and high winds in Chicago. In other words, not an unusual winter day for the city (and as those of us living here know, such conditions are becoming a little too typical). According to monitoring data reported by KCBX to U.S. EPA, on this day PM10 levels at the North site reached 175 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a 24-hour period, with hourly averages as high as 819 micrograms per cubic meter. The current National Ambient Air Quality Standard ("NAAQS") for PM10, for comparison, is 150 micrograms per cubic meter on a 24-hour average (not to be exceeded more than once per year on average over three years). Similar particle pollution levels on April 12 and May 8, 2014, are at the heart of a legal action by the U.S. EPA, and support a parallel lawsuit by the Illinois EPA and Illinois Attorney General. The February 14 monitoring data provides yet more justification for these actions - with the levels on Valentine's Day by far the highest daily average monitored at the sites to date.

The take-away message from this data is simple: the company's supposed cold-weather and high-wind control measures don't reliably work in cold weather and high winds. That's a major problem for a city like Chicago, where winter reigns for nearly half the year. Ironically, KCBX acknowledged in its June 2014 variance request to the City that the company's typical water and chemical spray systems don't work when temperatures reach below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. It sought permission to simply apply water and encrusting agents to the piles before temperatures drop and then again when temperatures rise. We agree that the company's spray systems can't hold up to Chicago's winter; we recently saw sprinklers at the South site frozen over with ice (photo above). The monitoring data from February 14 support that applying water and encrusting agents before and after cold temperatures is inadequate to address the facility's dust problem during Chicago winters, and that winter activities at KCBX's sites pose a real threat of pollution.

Clearly more needs to be done during such periods. For example, at minimum, the facilities must cease all "disturbance" of the piles during high winds, a baseline requirement of the City's rules. Or a broader shutdown may be needed, if other activities at the site are also contributing to the problem. While KCBX has announced that it will close the North site (which had the highest PM10 readings on Valentine's Day) this upcoming summer, the South site is to continue operating into summer 2016 with huge outdoor piles. The South site isn't without its own winter dust issues: on February 14, a South site monitor registered 6 hours of average PM10 levels above 100 micrograms per cubic meter, ranging up to 462 micrograms per cubic meter.

In sum, KCBX's Valentine's Day present to the community is all thorns and no roses. The company should heed relationship counselors who recommend coming clean and making amends, and show some real love to the Southeast Side by packing up its operations.

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney, Midwest program

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