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home : local news : local news May 22, 2015

12/10/2013 1:44:00 PM
'Petcoke' causing problems for some, but not Robinson
Daily News

It doesn't seem to be a problem here in Robinson, but elsewhere billowing black clouds darken the daytime sky as wind-driven grit pelts homes and cars and forces bewildered residents to take cover.

The onslaught was caused by the same thing: brisk winds sweeping across huge black piles of petroleum coke, or "petcoke," a powdery byproduct of oil refining that's been accumulating along Midwest shipping channels and sparking a new wave of health and environmental concerns.

The piles are evidence of a sharp increase in North American oil production - particularly crude extracted from oil sands in Canada - that has been trapped in the Midwest because of limited pipeline capacity to carry it to the Gulf and West coasts, leading to unprecedented amounts of oil refining and petcoke production here.

In Midwestern neighborhoods near refineries, the growing black mountains have brought outcries from residents and new efforts by lawmakers to control or banish the blowing dust.

"Robinson is different from Chicago and Detroit because the Marathon Petroleum Company's Robinson refinery primarily uses railcars to transport petroleum coke to customers," said Stefanie Griffith, Public Affairs, Marathon Petroleum Corporation. "Chicago and Detroit loads the petroleum coke from piles into ships for transportation to customers. It is important to note that there are several regulations currently in place to address some of the handling questions that have recently been raised in Detroit and Chicago."

Griffith went on to point out that petroleum coke is a non-hazardous product that has been produced and handled safely for several decades. Petroleum coke is produced at Marathon Petroleum Company's Robinson refinery. Most of the petroleum coke produced at Robinson is placed in railcars to be transported to customers. Additional supply is processed by a local third party.

The Robinson, Illinois Rain CII facility is the third party that receives anode-grade petroleum coke from the Marathon Refinery, said Peter Wagner Communications Manager for Rain CII.

"The anode-grade petroleum coke utilized by Rain CII is of a higher quality than the fuel-grade coke that has been making headlines in Detroit and Chicago. Anode-grade petroleum coke has a lower concentration of metals and sulfur than fuel-grade coke. It should be noted that the concentration of metals found in anode-grade coke is very low, that is, in parts per million," he said.

The Rain CII Robinson facility receives nearly all of its petroleum coke in rail cars from the refinery directly across the road from the calciner. The rail cars are unloaded and the petroleum coke is stored in piles at the facility.

"Typically, the Robinson facility has enough petroleum coke for two months of production," said Wagner.

He explained that to minimize dust emissions, piles are kept as low as possible and may be covered with tarps. The petroleum coke is taken from the piles and is processed (calcined or roasted) in a rotary kiln at about 2,400 F. The calcining process removes water and some impurities, increases the density of the coke and changes the electrical conductivity of the coke. The product, calcined petroleum coke, is cooled with water. A chemical wetting agent is applied to the calcined coke to minimize dust. The calcined coke is not stored on site but loaded directly into rail cars and shipped to Rain CII customers. Occasionally, some calcined coke does spend short periods of time in enclosed load-out tanks prior to being loaded onto rail cars. The calcined coke is suitable for use in manufacturing aluminum and titanium dioxide.

"Three of the foundational principles of Rain CII are: providing a safe work place for our employees, protecting the environment and being an involved, good neighbor in the communities in which we operate," Wagner said. "All operations conducted at the Robinson facility are permitted by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency."

In Chicago and Detroit things are different.

"We could barely open the windows this summer because the black dust was so bad," said Susanna Gomez, 37, a mother and grandmother who lives on Chicago's far southeast side, across a set of railroad tracks from a shipping terminal that stockpiles petcoke until it can be loaded on to ships for export. She said she worries about one of her sons, who's asthmatic, but doesn't have the money to move.

Alan Beemsterboer, whose family owns another nearby site that long has handled slag, asphalt and coal, and now, increasingly, petcoke, said he doesn't understand the controversy.

"This has been an industrial area forever - a coke plant used to be there, a steel mill used to be there," Beemsterboer said. "Coal and petcoke are just dirty words now."

Petcoke has been part of the American industrial landscape since the 1930s, when refineries began installing equipment to "cook" residue left over from making gasoline and diesel into a solid fuel that could be burned in power plants and cement kilns.

But the sheer volume of petcoke that appeared suddenly in Detroit and Chicago this year - almost all of it in open-air piles - was unprecedented, and caught residents and public officials off guard.

Refineries usually sell the petcoke to other companies, which store it until it can be loaded onto Great Lakes ships for export to places like China. Burning it emits high levels of soot and greenhouse gases, so its use in the U.S. is limited.

In Chicago, residents became alarmed when the black piles began growing about six months ago, said Tom Shepherd, a member of a neighborhood group. The last straw was when the petcoke went airborne on Aug. 30 and blew into their yards, churches and a Little League field.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the city Health Department to adopt regulations for petcoke, while aldermen introduced competing ordinances to regulate or ban it outright. The city and Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan have filed suit against Beemsterboer over the petcoke on his sites.

Although petcoke is not classified as hazardous, it contains heavy metals and inhaling the fine particles can cause respiratory problems.

Shepherd said residents worry because "there's already lot of asthma, cancer and other illnesses around here."

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