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 journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.