Chicago health commissioner blasts KCBX over petcoke

On Tuesday, the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX announced its plans to enclose the controversial piles of petcoke it has been storing on Chicago’s Southeast Side, releasing colorful drawings and an animated video — and saying it needs an extra 14 months beyond a city deadline to build the enclosure.

On Wednesday, the city’s public health commissioner sent KCBX president Dave Severson a scathing letter, denouncing the company for releasing the plans “via press release” without filing formal building plans or a variance request for an extension, under the city rules that require the enclosure be done by June 2016.

KCBX says there is no way the enclosure can be finished before late summer or fall 2017.

“Prior to your announcement, KCBX had applied for no permits and shared no formal plans or architectural drawings for this facility, despite the fact that the clock on your two-year timeline for building the facility started running more than six months ago,” said the December 17 letter from Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Commissioner Bechara Choucair.

The letter indicates that if KCBX does apply for a variance to get more time to build the enclosure, the city will deny it.

“The two-year timeline set forth in the CDPH rules remains in effect for KCBX and your recently announced plans and timeline unwisely assume that the additional time will be granted,” says the letter.

Speaking to Midwest Energy News on Tuesday, KCBX spokesman Jake Reint seemed to blame the city for slowing down the process, saying that permitting and regulatory processes will prevent KCBX from starting construction before fall 2015, and saying that the process could be slowed down even further by the introduction last week of an ordinance in City Council telling the health department to set limits on how much petcoke can be stored.

The letter accused KCBX of “an alarming lack of urgency about taking fast action to comply” with rules meant to protect the public health.

“Six months after the enclosure requirement took effect, you have done nothing to build the facility beyond preparing basic drawings, designing a website public relations video and, within the past few weeks, having only preliminary meetings about permit requirements at the city’s request.”

Reint said on Tuesday that a variance request seeking more time to build the enclosure would be filed “this week.” He declined to say which day it would be filed, saying “it’s a complicated process.”

Choucair’s letter said the variance process “does not exist to reward noncompliance,” indicating that KCBX’s failure to prepare and submit enclosure plans sooner is part of the reason it now claims it needs more time.

After receiving Choucair’s letter, KCBX responded with a letter saying there had been miscommunication, and asserting that the company filed for the variance on Wednesday and has been in contact with city officials and working on plans for the enclosure on an ongoing basis.

“We have met with the City of Chicago on numerous occasions regarding KCBX’s compliance with the City Rules, including the enclosure schedule,” said the letter. “Despite your statement to the contrary, KCBX is in compliance with the City Rules. KCBX wants to work with the CDPH and the City of Chicago and has in fact been doing so for many months.

“We can only assume that your letter stems from a lack of communication between the various agencies within the City of Chicago government…In fact, the City has thanked KCBX for its advance planning on permitting and for setting up the meetings prior to filing the permit applications.”

Last week the city denied two variance requests from KCBX, which had sought higher piles of petcoke and relief from a requirement to cover conveyors on one of its sites. The city found in favor of KCBX on three other variance requests.

Reint declined to clarify how the company will comply with covering the conveyors, since the company has said it is closing its northern site and would not invest in conveyor covers. However the north site cannot be closed and the petcoke moved to the company’s main site until the enclosure is done, Reint said.

Choucair’s letter also notes a city electron microscopy study that found petcoke dust on neighborhood sidewalks, “in direct contradiction to a flawed study from KCBX that claimed to have found no petcoke in soil samples.”

KCBX in its December 17 letter contested that conclusion: “Last week, the City for the first time, despite the frequent meetings KCBX and the City have had over the last several months, shared with KCBX opinions from a City consultant that raised questions about the impact KCBX’s operations may have on its neighbors. KCBX disagrees with those opinions, has asked for the data underlying those opinions, and would welcome the opportunity to review and discuss those conclusions with you, your consultant, and our experts.”

Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “The [health department] letter points movement in the right direction.”

“We hope the city will continue to work to push this dirty industry out of town, and rebuild the Southeast Side,” Henderson said.

Local activist Olga Bautista said the whole debacle is just more reason to ban petcoke from the city altogether.

“Just by admitting that they have to cover it means they are admitting it is a problem,” she said. “For these piles to remain uncovered during construction is unacceptable. We’re completely against them being open and operating while they build this enclosure. It’s another example of the devaluation of the lives of people in Southeast Chicago.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

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