A Dirty Battle in Chicago's Backyards

Residents of the Windy City are fighting the tar sands industry from spreading its toxic petcoke around town.

When the wind kicks up over Chicago’s Calumet River, the area’s residents get nervous. Piles of oil-refinery waste line the banks and, during a particularly bad storm in 2013, clouds of black dust billowed through the streets and darkened the skies of the Southeast Side’s working-class community. 

Even today, anxious parents hustle kids off baseball fields and back indoors to escape the dust, which manages to infiltrate homes—even with the windows shut. A sticky coating covers many of the houses downwind from the massive mounds of waste, some of which have been piled up to six stories high.

The dust is a by-product of refining tar sands oil, a dirty fuel source that is shipped to Midwestern refineries from mining pits in northern Canada. The residue of that refining process is called petroleum coke, or petcoke. Residents, worried about its impact on their homes and health, have partnered with NRDC to take action and protect themselves. Together, we’re pushing the city, state, and federal governments to impose rules and restrict future growth of petcoke storage facilities—and we’re ready to fight in court to ensure that it happens. 

“This has to stop,” says Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a small, volunteer-led community group working with NRDC. Dirty business, she says, don’t belong next to people’s homes.

The problem with petcoke

Extracting tar sands bitumen and refining it into oil that can be sold harms the environment in a host of ways—including the fact that producing it causes three times more global-warming pollution than conventional crude. And for Chicago’s residents, the impact is direct: Tar sands oil is processed in a massive BP refinery just across the state border in Whiting, Indiana, producing petcoke as a by-product—an astounding 6,000 tons every day. 

The petcoke is then transferred to KCBX Terminals, a company owned by the notorious climate-denying Koch brothers, which stores it a stone’s throw away from homes, schools, and parks on Chicago’s Southeast Side. KCBX Terminals eventually ships the petcoke to countries with less-stringent environmental laws than the United States, where it’s burned as a cheaper, dirtier substitute for coal. 

Lydia Jordan, a member of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, said in a January 2015 government meeting that the dirty residue “collects on homes and cars. It prevents people from being able to enjoy outdoor spaces. It impedes economic development. It doesn’t bring in jobs. It precludes other industries and nice things like shops and cafés from moving into the Southeast Side.”The Southeast Side residents who live in the shadows of the petcoke mounds are alarmed. Scientists know that inhaling the sort of dusty material that emanates from the piles (known as particulate matter) can cause a host of health problems, including asthma, respiratory and pulmonary issues, and premature death. And the neighborhood is suffering in other ways, too.

Taking aggressive action

When residents began speaking out against the petcoke piles in 2013, the news media—and, eventually, politicians—took note. Chicago’s mayor responded by banning new storage facilities in the city while imposing stricter regulations on existing ones, including an order for companies to cover up their petcoke piles by 2016, so that the dust doesn’t blow into nearby neighborhoods. If the companies don’t comply, they will have to pack up.

NRDC President, Rhea Suh, tours a Southeast Chicago PetCoke field with members of the community
Angela Guyadeen/NRDC

In April 2014, NRDC and the Southeast Environmental Task Force filed a notice of intent to sue KCBX and its owners, the billionaire Koch brothers, to force them to address some of the petcoke piles’ hazards.

Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has declared his support for a federal study on petcoke’s health impacts, and he invoked his visit to the Southeast Side’s piles when speaking out against the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline on the Senate floor. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, attorney general, and former governor, as well as Chicago’s Department of Public Health, have all responded to the issue. 

Due to this broad public pressure, BP announced in early 2015 that it would stop shipping petcoke to Chicago. The following day, KCBX made several concessions of its own. The city’s last petcoke storage operator vowed to shutter one of its Southeast Side facilities by mid-2015 and remove the dust mounds from the other, transforming the space into a rail-to-boat transfer station.

But the fight isn’t over. Southeast Side residents want to see petcoke’s negative impacts eliminated, not just lessened or pushed out to another community. “These are not the investments that make a great city,” says Henry Henderson, NRDC’s Midwest program director. “These are the investments that marginalize the community and the city. Chicago cannot be a city that puts petcoke over people."

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