EAST SIDE — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly unveiled legislation Thursday that would compel the federal government to study the health and environmental impact of petroleum coke and issue new guidelines for its production, storage and transportation.
Standing across the street from Chicago's last remaining petcoke storage facility near 108th Street and Burley Avenue, the two Illinois Democrats introduced HR 2636, “The Petroleum Coke Transparency and Public Health Protection Act,” with a group of neighborhood residents and supporters.
In his remarks, Durbin emphasized the need for national legislation. Although pressure from city and state government has slowly pushed pet coke out of Chicago, states such as Ohio, California and Kentucky are also grappling with the issue.
“Petcoke is becoming a problem for many people — none of whom deserve to breathe dirty air or live near potentially hazardous materials,” Durbin said.
The law gives federal officials six months to submit a report to Congress analyzing petcoke’s public health impact and assessing best practices for its handling. It also asks for data projecting domestic petcoke production and storage locations.
Petcoke is an industrial by-product created by the ton as refineries extract liquid fuel from crude oil. Southeast Side residents have protested against companies that store and transport petcoke through the city since black dust from three facilities began to blanket the area two years ago.
Before the press conference, Southeast Environmental Taskforce executive director Peggy Salazar ran her hand across the garage door of a house catty-corner from the site. Her palm and fingers were stained with what appeared to be a fine black soot.
“See?” Salazar said. “This is what we’re dealing with.”
Since 2013, one pet coke facility has closed its doors. The city recently barred a second facility from storing or transferring petcoke.
A third site owned by KCBX Terminals Co. remains at 108th and Burley. The company had previously stated that it would use the facility to transport petcoke but not to store it starting next summer.
But Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) called on the city to take further action against KCBX, saying she "would love to see KCBX shut down until the study is conducted."
“We’ve counted trains coming in with 100 cars of petcoke uncovered coming right through our neighborhood,” Garza said. “We’re looking for zero through-put."
After Garza spoke, KCBX workers hosed down the south site’s giant piles of petcoke. In a statement, KCBX spokesman Jake Reint said the company had installed a $10 million dust suppression system with water cannons, weather monitors, a wheel-washing station and other safeguards in the interest of addressing the issue. In addition, removing petcoke at the site as planned would decrease potential air emissions by 97 percent, Reint said.
Still, the company questioned the need for additional research or regulations. Reint cited the Chicago Department Health as having said, “There are no known illnesses or health effects associated with petcoke dust.” In reality, the department’s website says there are “no other known illnesses or health effects associated with petcoke dust” besides the host of lung conditions it can exacerbate.
"This dust, like other dust, can cause short-term impacts such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath," the city's website reads. "Dust can also aggravate respiratory conditions, such as asthma."
Reint also quoted a 2013 white paper from the Congressional Research Service that cites petcoke’s "low health hazard potential in humans, with no observed carcinogenic, reproductive, or developmental effects.” However, the same paper states that, “Cases of repeated-dose and chronic inhalation of fugitive dust (as generated during petcoke handling and storage)” appear associated with respiratory inflammation in animal studies.
Durbin said he hoped a definitive federal study would allay confusion around existing petcoke literature — or the lack thereof.
"When I offered an amendment on the floor of the Senate when we were debating the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Republicans said, ‘Well, there’s no evidence of any problems with [petcoke],’” Durbin recalled. He failed in his initial legislative attempts.
"So what we’re trying to do is keep coming back,” he said.
Read the full bill here:
Robin Amer covers the Southeast Side for DNAinfo Chicago.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: