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Chicago Has The Koch Brothers To Thank For Its Toxic Black Dust Problem

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In this Oct. 25, 2013 photo, petroleum coke, or petcoke, is stored on barges on the Calumet River near the Chicago Skyway Bridge in Chicago. The grainy black byproduct of oil refining has been piling up along Midwest shipping channels and sparking a new wave of environmental concerns. The volume and size of petcoke piles has grown sharply _ especially in the Midwest. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

In what environmentalists in Chicago are calling a "shameful switcheroo," it appears Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have had a change of heart when it comes to petcoke, the mostly-carbon and sulfur black dust that has been roiling the city's Southeast Side since last fall.

Though Emanuel vowed in February to crack down hard on the city's petcoke facilities -- the largest of which is owned by KCBX, a subsidiary of the Koch brothers-owned Koch Industries -- a revised edition of his ordinance introduced during a Wednesday City Council committee meeting by Ald. John Pope (10th) appears to open a big loophole.

The Emanuel-backed petcoke proposal would, like the original version, ban new petcoke storage sites from opening and existing ones from expanding. But the new version would allow for manufacturing facilities that use the dust to receive a zoning exemption to that ban, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The exemption, Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force told Progress Illinois, could allow the facilities to burn petcoke as fuel.

"Those are exactly the kind of facilities we don’t want in our communities. They’re opening the door to that," Salazar argued.

While Emanuel pledged in February that he would "make sure the ordinance puts up a 'not wanted' sign in the City of Chicago as it relates to petcoke," a spokesman for the mayor told the Tribune the exemption was necessary because "we do not want to preclude companies who use petcoke in their manufacturing processes from locating in the city."

Petcoke is a byproduct of the oil refining process, and mounds of the stuff have been piling up along the Calumet River in Chicago and blowing into nearby residential areas, raising environmental concerns. Unlike dirt, petcoke leaves behind a residue and can cause health problems like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, in addition to aggravating existing respiratory conditions like asthma, the Chicago Department of Public Health reports.

Most of the petcoke in Chicago is shipped in from the nearby BP refinery in Whiting, Ind., which was responsible for last month's Lake Michigan oil spill and is tripling their output of the dangerous dust after expanding their facility.

The black dust was the subject of a 14-minute mini-documentary from VICE News in February.

"Keep this stuff in Indiana where it belongs," an area resident testified at an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency community meeting in the VICE documentary.

Environmentalists fear that other parts of the city could also be at risk of being home to new petcoke sites in the future. Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest program, pointed out in a recent HuffPost blog that, under current law, such facilities could legally open in almost any of the 15 "planned manufacturing districts" located throughout the city.

The ordinance will next be considered by a City Council committee on April 24.

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