State of the State: Chicago's Southeast Side Sees New Environmental Threat

Feb 1, 2014

Jamey Dunn
Credit 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Communities on the southeast side of Chicago have borne the brunt of industrial pollution for decades. In recent years, community pushback has led to positive environmental developments. But residents now find themselves in the middle of a battle over piles of petroleum waste that are coating their homes and businesses in black dust. 

The region has a long history of industry and the environmental toll it can take. With cheap land and access to waterways and railroad transportation, the area near the Calumet River was appealing to industrial developers. At one point, the area was one of the largest steel-producing regions in the world. Plants in the Calumet River region employed an estimated 200,000 people. Steel took a downturn that started in the 1970s, and the last plant in the area closed in 2001. The southeast side became a dumping ground, with landfills covering 825 acres in the area. 

The area was far enough away from the core residential areas of the city that its environmental perils were out of sight and out of mind for most Chicagoans. But residents of the predominantly minority community organized and worked to push reforms, including testing of local water and a ban on landfill expansion. And progress has been made. Hundreds of bird species are flocking to the area; bald eagles have recently returned. Millions in public funding have been invested to clean up waterways and toxic sites. The state has invested $17.9 million to kick off the Millennial Reserve proposal, which aspires to one day preserve 140,000 acres of open space on the southeast side. 

While changes have taken place, the area is still home to the byproducts of industry. Petroleum coke, also known as petcoke, is a byproduct of refining oil. It is typically composed mostly of carbon, but it is also laced with heavy metals. Uncovered piles of petcoke, some reaching up to 60 feet tall, are stored at three sites along the Calumet River south of the Chicago Skyway Bridge. Much of the byproduct comes in by barge from the BP refinery in Whiting, Ind. Recent upgrades to the refinery will allow it to produce 2.2 million tons of petcoke a year. Before the changes, it produced about 700,000 tons. Petcoke production is up at the Whiting refinery and oil-processing plants across the country as they refine more oil from the tar sands of Canada. The oil is thicker and dirtier than that from other sources. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not classify petcoke as a hazardous material, but that is little consolation to those who live near large piles of petcoke lining the Calumet River and report large black clouds of the dust that shade the sun on windy days. The city of Chicago’s website notes that the EPA has not directly linked petcoke to any illnesses. But the city’s site still advises residents on ways they can reduce exposure. “Limit spending time outdoors or outdoor activities, especially under conditions where more dust is more likely to be present (i.e., dry and windy conditions). Keep windows closed. Clean floors and other surfaces in your home to get rid of dust.”

Hills of petcoke ash rise on Chicago’s southeast side.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

  The dust can cause irritation and aggravate health issues such as asthma and allergies. Several residents in the area have reported chronic respiratory problems. “I used to get dust on a regular basis, in the summer and spring when the wind blows, on my siding, on my lawn furniture, in my food if we were eating outdoors,” Peggy Salazar, who used to live near one of the petcoke storage sites, told National Public Radio. Salazar is head of Southeast Environmental Task Force, one of the community groups that is pushing back against petcoke storage in the area. Residents have sued KCBX Terminals, which is a subsidiary of Koch Industries — owned by the über wealthy and politically active brothers, Charles and David Koch. 

It appears that Salazar and others trying to protect the southwestern neighborhoods from the shroud of petcoke dust have some powerful allies. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has also sued KCBX. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has jumped into the fray, saying that the city has not done enough in the past to protect its residents. “We didn’t do our job, and thank God for community leaders ... who spoke up, demanded action, and we’re now catching up to where we should have been years ago,” Emanuel said. He backed city regulations that will require the piles to be covered at larger facilities and blocked from the wind at smaller ones. Emanuel and Madigan reached a settlement with another Indiana-based company, Beemsterboer, to remove its petcoke from Illinois. 

Gov. Pat Quinn announced last month that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency planned to put emergency rules in place to regulate the storage facilities statewide. The rules would create a timeline for the facilities to put in place safeguards. The plan calls for reducing the size of piles, removing any petcoke that has been at facilities for more than a year, monitoring wind speeds and installing dust suppression systems. The rules would also require facilities to store petcoke at least 200 feet away from water supplies.

“It’s a neighborhood battle, and it’s a state battle,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference. “It’s blown off of these mountains of petcoke into the homes of good people, who are trying to raise their children and make sure that they’re healthy. It’s blown into all kinds of businesses in the neighborhood. And it’s important that we have statewide rules. Rules that protect everyone in Illinois.” Quinn says that statewide rules are needed to ensure that the companies storing petcoke will not just move it to avoid Chicago regulations once they are in place. 

Illinois EPA Director Lisa Bonnett says the emergency rules are a way to get the immediate situation under control until lawmakers can approve regulations. Quinn says he plans to propose legislation to the General Assembly. Bonnett says the IEPA currently has applications for more petcoke storage facilities, but she says the agency will take a “time out” on approving new permits until rules are in place and IEPA reviews the impact the substance has had on the water, land and air in the area.

“We will continue to do everything necessary to ensure that Illinois does not become a dumping ground for petroleum coke,” Bonnett says. “After seeing the piles firsthand and how they are affecting this community, it’s clear that strong action is necessary. We are committed to continuing the cooperative efforts at the federal, state and local level to address this issue.”

The issue has also drawn the attention of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who has toured the area. “Driving by the petcoke piles in Chicago, I understand why the families living nearby are concerned,” Durbin said in a written statement. “Exposing them and their children to dangerous air pollution containing heavy metals and cancer-causing materials is the ultimate in corporate irresponsibility. Gov. Quinn’s action was the right thing to do.” Durbin has filed legislation that would require U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy to study the environmental effects of petcoke and review the best practices for transporting and storing it. Durbin also sent letters to the 20 companies that hold permits to store petcoke in the state requesting information on what steps they are taking to protect the environment and public health. 

KCBX says it is willing to comply with regulations as long as they are “reasonable.” Mike Estadt, an operations manager for KCBX, said at a city Public Health meeting that Quinn’s rules could shut down one of the storage facilities. 

But many in the neighborhoods affected by the dust just want the piles gone. “The only remedy is the complete and total removal of petcoke from our communities,” said Richard Martinez, head of the Environmental Justice Alliance of Southeast Chicago.

Salazar said the emergency rules give the petcoke storage yards too long to clean up their acts. “Maybe the governor wants us to think he’s doing something, but he really isn’t,” she said at the hearing.

While the health risks of frequent exposure to petcoke may need further study, the diminishment in quality of life does not. People in this area cannot enjoy their yards in the summer or open their windows to let in a cool breeze. Some say they have to power wash their homes once a week. Their kids can’t go out to play. People who suffer from asthma and other conditions must always worry that a stroll around the block might bring on an attack of symptoms triggered by petcoke dust. Few of us would be willing to put up with such an intrusion into our daily lives. This story may sound like your typical “not in my backyard tale.” But the difference is that for the residents of a few neighborhoods on the southeast side of Chicago, it seems this sort of thing always ends up in their backyards. And that’s just not fair.

Illinois Issues, February 2014