Koch Brothers Firm Threatens to Sue Chicago

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants petroleum coke storage companies to "either clean up or shut down." Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants petroleum coke storage companies to "either clean up or shut down." Flickr user Daniel X. O'Neil

A company controlled by conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch might sue Chicago if it does not receive variances from the city’s Department of Public Health to leave piles of dirty petroleum coke uncovered for the next four years.

The threat of the lawsuit, first reported Friday morning by the Chicago Tribune, sets the stage for a potentially bruising legal fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is considering new regulations for petroleum coke storage that would make it costly for companies to keep mounds of the tar-sands oil-refining byproduct inside city limits.

“Just as we fought to shutter the two remaining coal power plants in the city of Chicago, we are working to force these petroleum coke facilities to either clean up or shut down,” Emanuel said in March.

In the near term, Emanuel’s administration wants companies to construct giant sheds to hold petcoke by 2016, which would help prevent the substance from blowing into nearby neighborhoods.

Koch-owned KCBX Terminals, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is violating the Clean Air Act, wants two additional years to cover its piles and says measures it has already taken has kept the dust in check, according to Earth Island Journal.

The Tribune reports that KCBX has been expanding its Chicago storage facilities for the black substance, commonly called petcoke, and wants to increase the height of its petcoke piles from the current 30-foot mandated limit to 45 feet.

In order to do that, the company would need approval from the city.

According to the Tribune:

"If the department denies the variances, KCBX's only recourse would be to challenge the department in court," the company's lawyers wrote in an 88-page request that repeatedly describes the Emanuel rules as an "unreasonable hardship."

In May, The Atlantic’s CityLab detailed the impact petcoke has had on Chicago neighborhoods:

Jan Rodolfo went on a tour of the Southeast side of Chicago last week. When she got home, it took some time to wash off the residue of the trip. “I don’t remember touching much of anything,” says Rodolfo, the Midwest director of National Nurses United, a nationwide public-health advocacy group. “But I came home with petcoke under my fingernails that I had to work to scrub off.”

That didn’t bother her nearly as much, though, as what she saw on that tour: piles of petcoke in the middle of a residential neighborhood, right next to a youth baseball field, close to schools, and looming over backyards where children play. “I saw kids with petcoke dust on their faces,” says Rodolfo, describing the Dickensian scene. “It doesn’t rub off. You have to scrub it off.”

In August 2013, Detroit’s then-mayor, Dave Bing, ordered the removal of petcoke piles that towered up four stories near the Detroit River. According to the Detroit Free Press, city officials cited a Detroit-based company storing the petcoke for Koch subsidiary Koch Carbon with four violations of city regulations over its petcoke storage.

Koch Carbon said at the time that it was moving its Detroit petcoke piles out of the state of Michigan.

(Image via Flickr user Daniel X. O'Neill via an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license)

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