Our Home Is Not a Dumping Ground, Say Chicago’s Southeast Side Residents

Kari Lydersen

Locals worry what effects the black petcoke piles along the Calumet River will have on their health and their job prospects. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Chicago’s South­east Side was once the vibrant — if pol­lut­ed — hub of the nation’s steel indus­try. Though most of those steel mills were closed by the 1990s, many for­mer union steel­work­ers still live there, often strug­gling to make a liv­ing in the wake of a col­lapsed indus­try. And now, the area is home to a new inhab­i­tant: piles of petro­le­um coke that stand as high as 30 feet and stretch for about a mile along the banks of the near­by Calumet River.

Petro­le­um coke, also known as pet­coke,” is the byprod­uct of refin­ing Cana­di­an tar sands oil, which is now being shipped in huge quan­ti­ties to refiner­ies around the coun­try. KCBX Ter­mi­nals, a sub­sidiary of Koch Indus­tries, has been qui­et­ly pil­ing the grainy black mate­r­i­al along the riv­er for the last year or so. Though KCBX has been secre­tive about the piles’ ori­gins, the BP oil refin­ery just across the bor­der in Whit­ing, Ind. has con­firmed that its pet­coke is head­ing for Chicago.

Much of the pet­coke will even­tu­al­ly be shipped to Chi­na or oth­er far-flung loca­tions, where it will be burned in high-pol­lut­ing pow­er plants or cement kilns. In oth­er words, Chica­go is being used as a lay­over site for the mate­r­i­al. Not only does pet­coke include tox­ic heavy met­als and oth­er com­pounds, but breath­ing any kind of fine dust — par­tic­u­late mat­ter — is known to cause and exac­er­bate car­diac and res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases. And accord­ing to South­east Side res­i­dents, clouds of dust fre­quent­ly blow off the piles, coat­ing their streets and homes with soot.

Even as the tar sands indus­try draws envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic and social con­tro­ver­sy, its pro­po­nents in the U.S. and Cana­da empha­size the num­ber of jobs that the indus­try cre­ates, includ­ing about 3,500 con­struc­tion posi­tions for the Whit­ing refinery’s near­ly $4 bil­lion expan­sion last year. But pet­coke has few such redeem­ing qual­i­ties. Instead, it sim­ply allows indus­try play­ers to squeeze a last bit of prof­it out of what is basi­cal­ly a waste product.

At a high­ly con­tentious pub­lic hear­ing Jan­u­ary 13, South­east Side res­i­dents accused Chicago’s elect­ed offi­cials of refus­ing to stand up to the big busi­ness inter­ests behind the pet­coke piles — name­ly KCBX’s sprawl­ing par­ent com­pa­ny, Koch Indus­tries, which is run by the noto­ri­ous­ly right-wing Koch brothers.

The res­i­dents all called for a ban on pet­coke stor­age, a move May­or Rahm Emanuel said he oppos­es in favor of the city’s pro­posed reg­u­la­tions that were the ini­tial sub­ject of the pub­lic hear­ing. Such reg­u­la­tions would require large pet­coke piles to be enclosed and all pet­coke trans­fer oper­a­tions to take place indoors. They would also neces­si­tate fre­quent water-spray­ing and mon­i­tor­ing of the piles. 

But the reg­u­la­tions, locals point out, aren’t per­fect. They would allow exist­ing and small­er pet­coke receivers to con­tin­ue stor­ing the mate­r­i­al out­doors, and the city’s health com­mis­sion­er could approve exemp­tions for indi­vid­ual com­pa­nies. So even with the new rules in place, oppo­nents fear expand­ing pet­coke stor­age would still seal their neighborhood’s fate as a dump­ing ground, unlike­ly to attract qual­i­ty jobs.

At the hear­ing, KCBX oper­a­tions man­ag­er Mike Estadt said the company’s pet­coke stor­age oper­a­tion cre­ates 40 union jobs and con­trac­tor jobs. Though every neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent at the hear­ing denounced the pro­posed city reg­u­la­tions as too weak, Estadt main­tains the com­pa­ny may close if such rules are insti­tut­ed — thus elim­i­nat­ing those employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. In the past, KCBX has also argued that it pri­or­i­tizes the health and safe­ty of its work­ers and the community.

Lor­raine Ash­by, who tes­ti­fied at the hear­ing on behalf of the region’s retired Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, says the KCBX posi­tions aren’t worth petcoke’s detri­men­tal effect on the neigh­bor­hood. Steel­work­ers are no strangers to work­ing and liv­ing around heavy indus­try and pol­lu­tion, she argues. But they see pet­coke as lack­ing the eco­nom­ic poten­tial of the mills that once defined the area.

There are no jobs there,” Ash­by scoffs, about KCBX. Like 10 peo­ple pulling levers — prob­a­bly non-union — and a few truck dri­vers. We lost 40,000 jobs when the mills closed.”

Jim Kin­ney worked at U.S. Steel South Works on the South­east Side for years. Though he acknowl­edges the area has fall­en on hard times, he says that doesn’t mean its res­i­dents will set­tle for some­thing like the pet­coke piles.

The oth­er day I saw a pawn shop going up — when you see that in your neigh­bor­hood, you know you’re in trou­ble,” he says. But jobs relat­ed to pet­coke stor­age are not the way to go, he stress­es. We could be build­ing things for light rail, stoves, refrig­er­a­tors” — jobs that require more skilled work­ers and pre­sum­ably offer high­er wages. If you have pet­coke, it’s unhealthy, bad for the envi­ron­ment [and] it takes up space.” Plus, it reduces the chance actu­al good jobs will be cre­at­ed, since it would make the area less attrac­tive to oth­er employ­ers, he says. It doesn’t need to be like this!”

John San­doval describes him­self as a vet­er­an with 40 years in the mil­i­tary, includ­ing stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says each time he returns to his home­town, he sees more neg­a­tive changes. He blasts pet­coke stor­age as a dead end that will kill future eco­nom­ic opportunities.

In the mil­i­tary we have vision­ar­ies — we look out­ward 10, 15, 20 years down the road,” he says, imply­ing that those stor­ing pet­coke are only think­ing in the short term. KCBX, take a step back, and leave us alone.”

Nick Lim­beck is a sec­ond-grade teacher and Chica­go Teach­ers Union mem­ber at Gal­lis­tel Lan­guage Acad­e­my ele­men­tary school. He says his stu­dents can’t avoid the dust from the pet­coke piles, some of which are locat­ed just a few blocks from Gallistel’s campus.

I was pret­ty sur­prised to find this black soot all over my 7‑year-old children’s desks [and] all over the win­dowsills,” he says, adding that he had stu­dents research the Koch broth­ers in class. He main­tains May­or Emanuel’s refusal to back a pet­coke stor­age ban is evi­dence of Emanuel’s will­ing­ness to put com­mu­ni­ties of col­or at a disadvantage.

Let’s call a spade a spade — this is envi­ron­men­tal racism,” Lim­beck says, ref­er­enc­ing the South­east Side’s heav­i­ly Lati­no pop­u­la­tion. The may­or is try­ing to reg­u­late his way out of this — this is Rahm Emanuel’s M.O [method of oper­a­tion]. He’s already closed down 50 schools in main­ly black neigh­bor­hoods. The black com­mu­ni­ty knows who their ene­my is — now the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty is see­ing who their ene­my is, as [Emanuel] is help­ing the Koch broth­ers dump tox­ic waste in Lati­no neighborhoods.”

Robert Veloz worked for Repub­lic Steel for 23 years, deal­ing with a dif­fer­ent form of coke as a cru­cial ele­ment of steel-mak­ing. He laments what the pet­coke stor­age means for his three grand­chil­dren, bright young chess play­ers who trav­el to tour­na­ments but then have to return to a pol­lut­ed com­mu­ni­ty with few mean­ing­ful employ­ment options.

They’re lit­tle!” Veloz says des­per­ate­ly. They have good heads on them. What will we do if we can’t move away from this? We need … some­thing dif­fer­ent from what we have. We don’t need all these scraps that they send us.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH