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Chicago-Style Petcoke Politics
New rules expected to eliminate giant mounds of polluting dust might actually make the problem worse. Time for a rewrite.

On windy days in the Windy City (which happen a lot, as you might imagine), an oily dust wafts into the air and settles on rooftops, patio furniture, and playgrounds all across Chicago’s Southeast Side. When wiped away, the dust leaves a dark smear.

This is not a natural phenomenon. The residue comes from petroleum coke, or petcoke, a byproduct of refined oil (particularly tar sands oil) that energy companies like KCBX, owned by the notorious Koch brothers, have been heaping along the Calumet River. To see what it looks like and why residents are concerned, check out this jaw-dropping video from Vice News:

Some of the petcoke is coming from the nearby BP oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, where the company just finished an overhaul that will allow the facility to process more tar sands crude shipped down from Canada. The expansion is expected to triple—yes, triple—the amount of petcoke the refinery produces.

Residents aren’t happy about the huge polluting piles in their midst, which are more than just ugly; the oily dust spreading through the city’s Southeast neighborhoods presents significant health concerns. Exposure to the dust can cause coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, while also aggravating respiratory conditions like asthma. (And those are just the health problems that officials and the industry are willing to acknowledge; residents complain of quite a deal more.)

“I live half a mile from the petcoke piles, and they’re half a mile from my daughter’s school. Nine hundred kids go there ... you have to consider all those kids,” said Olga Bautista, a city resident with two small children, at a hearing earlier this week to consider new city rules that would regulate the petcoke piles.

The outcry against petcoke has grown so strong that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushed into action, with talk of forcing out the existing piles and outlawing new ones with costly regulations. But when those regulations were presented for a hearing Tuesday, they lacked teeth; instead, the city unveiled an ordinance that the Chicago Tribune says “opens the door for greater use of the high-sulfur, high-carbon refinery byproduct in the city.”

That’s certainly not what residents and advocates were expecting and hoping for, especially after several months working with city officials to craft tougher safeguards. “We want a ban. We want it out of there,” says Peggy Salazar, a member of the city’s Southeast Environmental Task Force.

But a complete ban wouldn’t hold up in court, according to the city’s legal department. The ordinance under review would prevent storage areas from expanding, but it would allow companies that use petcoke and coal for manufacturing to store and burn it as fuel, potentially increasing the places where the piles can … well, pile up. As Henry Henderson, Chicago’s former environmental commissioner and the Midwest director of NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), explained: “Big facilities that burn the stuff, like cement manufacturers and dirty energy producers, are free to open and expand across many city districts.”

NRDC wants amendments to the ordinance that would “ensure that communities will not become concentrated coke and coal centers,” says attorney Meleah Geertsma. Other residents and advocates also voiced displeasure with the proposed ordinance, forcing the committee to postpone a vote until next month. In the meantime, petcoke opponents will be pushing for stronger safeguards, planning a protest march, and hoping for a forecast without any wind.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔