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Pollution board denies Quinn's petcoke regulations

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TAMMY WEBBER | January 24, 2014 10:42 AM EST | AP


CHICAGO (AP) — An Illinois pollution panel on Thursday rejected proposed emergency rules to control piles of petroleum coke along Chicago shipping channels, saying Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency failed to prove there was an imminent threat to public health and safety.

Instead, any new rules must go through the regular rulemaking process to provide more time to consider what protections are needed, the Illinois Pollution Control Board said.

Residents on Chicago's southeast side have complained about growing piles of petroleum coke, or "petcoke," saying they fear it can cause respiratory and other health problems and pollute waterways. Their complaints gained attention from city and state officials in August, after petcoke blew into a neighborhood and a park.

The grainy black substance is a byproduct of oil refining, used as fuel in coal and cement plants or in products such as bricks and cement. The piles have been growing as nearby refineries process more oil from Canadian tar sands.

Quinn proposed rules last week to require terminals that store the petcoke to immediately install dust-suppression systems and prevent storm water runoff. He also wanted operators of petcoke and coal terminals throughout Illinois to fully enclose piles within two years.

But industry officials called Quinn's action "regulatory overreach" because Chicago's health department and aldermen already have proposed rules and petcoke handlers have taken steps to prevent the material from blowing around again. Plus, at least one handler already has said it's willing to build structures to enclose its piles.

What's more, they said, Quinn's regulations would have applied to all bulk storage areas — including downstate coal terminals — that haven't drawn complaints and could force some to temporarily shut down.

Industry officials also complained they had only a few days to respond to the proposal.

"You hardly have time to get your arms and your head around what the issues could be," said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's energy council. "Put facts on table and let's go through (the rulemaking) process."

Quinn's office issued a statement saying it was disappointed with the board's decision but is "reviewing alternative options (to) ensure that nobody has to live with harmful dust blowing into their community," but did not say what those options are.

A Quinn spokesman did not immediately return phone and email messages seeking details on the options.

Environmental groups and residents, some of whom wanted a halt to all petcoke operations until the piles were enclosed, said petcoke continues to blow around and endanger residents.

Though drafted quickly, the rules were needed "to address what we do believe is an emergency situation, so disappointed that the board chose not to address them that way," said Jennifer Cassel, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

But she said she's glad that there eventually will be permanent rules; emergency rules would have expired after 150 days.

Chicago officials have proposed city-specific regulations that include calling for storage facilities to enclose materials like petcoke. Proposed ordinances pending before the City Council include a ban on the substance, although Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said such a step isn't likely.

Quinn said the pollution board's process would help inform whether a ban on storing petcoke was necessary.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which helped file lawsuits against the companies, has said it is drafting statewide legislation on petcoke regulation, which could be taken up later this year.