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Southeast Chicago’s Battle Against Petcoke

Residents and local environmental groups face well-financed foes – Charles and David Koch

On August 30, 2013, a vicious windstorm ripped through Chicago’s Southeast Side, blowing clouds of thick, black dust into the neighborhoods of this working-class corner of the city. The winds deposited the sticky dust on windows, screens, porches, lawns, and sidewalks. If you were unlucky enough to be outside, the dust attached itself like leeches to your skin. People couldn’t just rub it off; they had to scrub it off.

photo of an industrial plant by a watercoursephoto by Christopher JohnsonDuring storms, petcoke and its array of chemicals can wash into the nearby Calumet River.

The black dust was petroleum coke – petcoke for short – a byproduct of tar sands oil refineries that resembles coal. In this community of Chicago, huge mountain-like piles of petcoke sit out in the open, rising as high as five stories tall, and even a slight breeze can blow the dust into nearby neighborhoods. When a windstorm kicks up like the one last August, Southeast Side communities are blanketed with the sticky, smelly substance. As a result, during the past two years, the Southeast Side has become ground zero in the battle over petcoke.

Chicago is not alone. Detroit once had similar mountains of the stuff, but when storms blew dust over adjacent homes in August 2013, then-Mayor Dave Bing ordered the Detroit Bulk Storage Company to move the piles of petcoke outside of city limits.

In Chicago, though, the solution to this pernicious pollutant hasn’t been so simple. That’s because Southeast Side residents and local environmental groups face supremely well-financed foes – Charles and David Koch. One of the Koch brothers’ subsidiaries, KCBX Terminal Company, stores the towering piles of petcoke at two locations, together covering about 140 acres.

Some of the petcoke makes its way to KCBX from nearby Whiting, Indiana, where a gigantic BP refinery processes tar sands from Alberta, Canada. A byproduct of the refining process is a residuum, or residual material, which the refinery then sends through a coking operation, producing some 2.2 million tons of petcoke a year. The resulting substance fuels power plants, cement kilns, and steel mills – and enhances the profitability of tar sands. Producers export about eighty percent of the petcoke, primarily to China, India, Mexico, and Turkey. But until it’s shipped overseas, it has to be stored somewhere, and that’s where KCBX comes in. KCBX has a permit to handle and store up to 11 million tons of petcoke a year at one of their two storage terminals. According to local environmental groups, so far the two facilities have stockpiled a total of about 450,000 tons of petcoke.

Petcoke is only the latest in a long series of environmental hazards that the people of the Southeast Side have faced. This is the industrial center of Chicago, where for decades, steel mills spewed red clouds of pollution that created an eternal haze. The steel mills are long gone, but industry still dominates. A sprawling Ford plant rolls out thousands of cars every year, while waste treatment plants, cement kilns, and scrapyards line the Calumet River. Snuggling up to the boundaries of the industrial plants are neighborhoods with primarily Hispanic and African-American populations. The median income for Southeast Side families is $45,000 a year, and one-third of the families with children live below the poverty line.

Yet the people of this community are remarkably resilient, and for the past two years, they have waged a war against petcoke and KCBX. The struggle has ramifications nationally, as heavy tar sands oil is being transported in growing quantities to American refineries. Annually, the United States produces some 42 million tons of petcoke, and more communities can expect to see it piling up near them in the coming years, particularly on the Gulf Coast.

photo of demonstrating peoplephoto by Jan Rodolfo, National Nurses UnitedOn May 12, 2014, National Nurses United and the Southeast Environmental Task Force led a press
conference and rally in downtown Chicago to protest against the storage of petcoke on the Southeast Side.

The health impacts of petcoke range from the highly visible to the lethally invisible. Tom Shepherd, president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), which has fought corporate polluters since 1989, explained that petcoke leaves a nasty residue on everything, including windows, porches, furniture, and people’s faces. It also ends up in people’s lungs. “Recently Senator Dick Durbin [Illinois’ senior Senator] visited people in the community,” said Shepherd. “He dragged his finger across a windowsill, and it came up black. One man said that he couldn’t use his swimming pool any more because the dust turns the water black. There’s a baseball field nearby. When the winds are blowing dust, we have to make the kids get off the field.”

Jan Rodolfo, Midwest director of National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the United States, explained that petcoke presents severe health threats for two reasons – the size of the dust particles and the chemical makeup of the particles. “If a particle is small enough, it will get into your lungs, exacerbating emphysema, asthma, and heart disease,” she said. Dust particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter are the most dangerous because they can embed themselves deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Scientific studies have connected these miniscule particles to early death from lung and heart disease, worsened asthma, nonfatal heart attacks, and decreased functioning of the lungs. The particles have their most pernicious effects on children and the elderly.

As Tom Shepherd led me on a tour of South Deering, the neighborhood adjacent to KCBX, we stopped in front of a house that directly faced mounds of petcoke. The homeowner, Peter Czerniak, came out and explained that he suffers from asthma and has to keep three respirators in his house to keep breathing. If the wind blows toward his house, he dares not open the windows.

An equally harmful aspect of petcoke is its chemical makeup. “Piles of petcoke have heavy metals, such as sulfate,” explained Rodolfo. “The EPA issued a report recently that shows that petcoke has especially high levels of vanadium and nickel.” And in a recent notice of intent to sue KBCX for violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the SETF and the Natural Resources Defense Council claim that petcoke particles may contain lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium, chromium, nickel, and vanadium. These substances can cause an array of health problems, including skin damage, nervous disorders, impaired lung function, irregular heart rhythm, and brain damage.

photo of industrial waste by a flowing riverphoto by Christopher JohnsonScrapyard, cement kilns, and industrial plants line the Calumet River. Because it is so polluted, it is listed as a Great Lakes Area of Concern.

KCBX, however, has denied that dust from its terminals infiltrates the surrounding neighborhood. In a letter to local citizens dated December 19, 2013, plant manager Mike Estadt pointed out that the company has spent $30 million to upgrade the facility, including $10 million to install water cannons to tamp down the dust. In a follow-up letter in February of 2014, Estadt added, “Our new dust suppression system at the KCBX South Facility is now operational, and we observed no dust during the powerful wind storm that hit the area this past November.” According to Estadt, the company also hired an environmental expert who took ground samples in the surrounding community and found no evidence of wayward petcoke or coal dust.

KCBX also installed air quality monitors at the behest of the EPA – and the monitors told a very different story. On April 12, 2014 and May 8, 2014, the monitors recorded particulate levels exceeding those permitted under the Clean Air Act.

During the past year, people who live on the Southeast Side have objected more and more strenuously to the situation. “We really started getting a lot of support in the community after the windstorm in August 2013,” said Shepherd. “People snapped pictures and shot video that went viral.”

The pressure may finally be working. In November 2013, the State of Illinois sued KCBX Terminals, claiming that the black dust caused air pollution in local neighborhoods. In March of this year, the state filed a second lawsuit, accusing KCBX of allowing particles to flow into storm drains and into the Calumet River. And on April 17, 2014, EPA staff agreed to collect dust samples from homes and public grounds in the neighborhoods surrounding the KCBX facilities. The samples contained vanadium and nickel, both of which are chemical footprints of petcoke.

On April 30 this year, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance requiring petcoke handlers to build structures that enclose the mountains of dust within two years. The ordinance also bans construction of additional petcoke storage terminals. Alderman John Pope, who represents the ward that contains the KCBX terminals, told the Chicago Tribune: “While nothing in this world is perfect, this ordinance gets us closer to what we want.”

Yet the nurses union is upset about the two-year delay, and in May, the union, the SETF, and the Southeast Coalition to Ban Petcoke teamed up for a press conference downtown to explain why local government’s response had been inadequate.  “Meanwhile, people’s health will continue to suffer,” said Rodolfo. “It’s outrageous. Officials are acting as if these people’s lives are expendable.”  

Despite lingering challenges, communities like those in Chicago’s Southeast Side have shown they are willing to stand up to the polluters who are spreading black dust throughout their neighborhoods. Now that local residents have finally gotten the attention of government officials, they just might have a fighting chance to make sure their kids can play baseball outside without breathing in this sticky, smelly, dangerous substance.

Christopher Johnson
Christopher Johnson is a writer on conservation issues who is based in Evanston, Illinois. He has published articles in a variety of magazines, including Appalachia, Chicago Wilderness, Chicago Life, E: The Environmental Magazine, and Snowy Egret. In 2013, Island Press published Forests for the People, which Johnson co-authored with David Govatski. His previous book was This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains (University of New Hampshire Press, 2006).

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