A group of activists took U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL-5) through the environmental mire that is Chicago's South Deering community as well as adjacent neighborhoods. During Tuesday's tour, the environmentalists and area residents pointed out the towering, six-story piles of petcoke that are ruining their health and quality of life.
Locals have long referred to the area as Slag Valley — so named for the waste produced by the steel mills that defined the community for a century before leaving disappointment and economic blight. While the mills polluted the air and water, at least they provided jobs, residents say.
Now, they talk of the pollution that, they say, is as bad or worse than what was created by the steel mills, adding that the petcoke piles cause eye irritation, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and more. And, they noted, there is no economic benefit to the residents, who walked Quigley through the KCBX Terminals storage yard, even as they suffer from the presence of petcoke in their neighborhoods.
“The long-term solution is to move away from tar sands and dirty fuels,’’ said Quigley as he surveyed huge mounds of black petcoke at the Koch Brother-controlled KCBX storage yard. “The short-term solution is to get these piles of petcoke covered and lessen some of the immediate health concerns.’’
Every resident the congressman met had a story about how the petcoke piles are harming their health or quality of life. One area resident, who had a neighbor help with translation, caught up to the caravan tour to speak with the lawmaker. His kids have asthma, which is exacerbated by the blowing petcoke debris, and his insurance doesn’t cover their treatment. They can’t play outside, even on the nicest days, he added.
“A lot of people have come and heard us,’’ said Juan Rodriguez. “But everything stays the same.’’
Quigley’s voice gives away his uncertainty about what can be achieved to help the local residents. He pulled out his Sierra Club membership card and talks about his long-time, “card-carrying’’ affiliation with the environmental organization, history of teaching environmental policy classes, and disappointment in the current political climate.
“The Koch Brothers write endless, anonymous checks,’’ Quigley laments. “To get a Sierra Club endorsement you have to be vetted and it takes forever and then the check is small.
“If we are talking about comparative influence, there is no comparison.’’
Petcoke or petroleum coke is a byproduct of oil refining, and has become much more common in recent years due to the use of tar sands as an energy source. Petcoke made its way to the KCBX Terminals in Southeast Chicago, in the last three years.
Because it is relatively new, regulations are lagging. The Chicago City Council recently approved an ordinance to regulate petcoke, but officials said an outright ban wouldn’t be legal. The ordinance prohibits new petcoke storage facilities and requires petcoke piles at existing facilities to be covered within two years. Emnvironmentalists say the regulation is too weak and takes too long to implement, considering the suffering of the residents on the city's Southeast Side.
One of the few current safeguards against petcoke requires that the company spray the piles with water cannons to weigh down the soot and keep it from spreading. During yesterday's unannounced tour, the water cannons were off.
Little League baseball games near the multi-story petcoke piles have to be called off when the winds blow. The children and the community as a whole are battling with dirty, black soot covered cars and homes, and their windows must be closed nearly all the time.
In an attempt to address the issue, Quigley has drafted a letter along with 10 other members of Congress to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy urging more study of the health risks presented by petcoke. The letter also asks for a detailed analysis of existing rules under which petcoke can be regulated and how the substance is monitored.
“We’ve endured the steel industry since 1874,’’ said Tom Shepherd, a member of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “We can’t take this for another two years or longer.’’
The fight is being waged on several fronts. KCBX faces a lawsuit filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accuses the company of violating air pollution laws at its facility. Madigan's office filed another lawsuit in March asking a Cook County judge to cite KCBX for violating water-quality and open-dumping laws. Three additional lawsuits filed by area residents against BP, KCBX and other petcoke associated companies have been consolidated into one. The suit seeks punitive damages as a means "to punish the wrongdoer and defer further wrongdoing," says an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The Task Force and other opponents from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan are planning this weekend to protest the Whiting facility, the biggest tar sands refinery in the nation and the cause of a recent crude oil spill into Lake Michigan. KCBX stores petcoke generated by the BP refinery just over the Indiana border. BP recently expanded the refinery to more than triple its output of petcoke, estimating that it will soon produce 2.2 million tons annually.
Image of Petcoke Piles: Flickr/ Jsmog