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Oil Refining Waste Heads to Virginia, Kentucky

A petcoke ship docked on Chicago's southeast side. (Natural Resources Defense Council)
A petcoke ship docked on Chicago's southeast side. (Natural Resources Defense Council)
December 31, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. - Tons of oil-refining waste known as petcoke is on the move to Virginia from Indiana. The Natural Resources Defense Council worked with people who live along the Calumet River in South Chicago to keep a BP facility in Whiting, Indiana, from dumping it near their neighborhoods.

Petroleum coke or petcoke is more than 90 percent carbon and Josh Mogerman, deputy director of national media with the NRDC, says the toxic dust gets airborne and ends up on homes, cars and yards, and in people's lungs too.

"Can this stuff go to places that are not right on the edge of people's homes and parks, and schools," says Mogerman. "In Virginia, there seems to be real concern about this. Some of the communities near where this stuff is going are suffering from really, really high asthma rates."

Early in 2015, BP announced it would stop sending the waste to a dumping site in Chicago. Instead, it's now being moved along the Ohio River, including to a coal-handling facility in Paducah, Kentucky, and an export facility in Newport News, Virginia.

Mogerman says BP's tar sand expansion produces three times more waste than it used to, and creates more petcoke than U.S. companies can use as a fuel source. He says it's being shipped, trucked and put on trains going to Kentucky and Virginia and he thinks residents of those states should do what Chicago did fight back.

"There's not a lot of regulation on this stuff, to let the public know where it's going and how it's being stored, and those are things that I think need to change," says Mogerman. "The public needs to be safeguarded from this problem that's just getting worse, not better."

When used as a fuel, petcoke burns hotter, but emits more carbon dioxide than coal. BP says it's working to avoid, minimize and mitigate environmental impacts in places where it does business, but Mogerman says petcoke is nasty wherever it ends up.

"This is a real public health issue, and it's one that can and should be addressed if people raise their voices and say that they need the protections," says Mogerman.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA