Barges filled with material that appears to be petroleum coke line the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)
A full rainbow arched over the Calumet River on a bleak day in late September, lending a hint of beauty to the massive abandoned grain elevator, the ramshackle warehouses and the lines of barges moored by the Illinois International Port.
Some of the barges were covered, but at least nine of them were uncovered and piled high with a powdery black material that appeared to be petroleum coke, or petcoke, the byproduct of oil refining that has sparked a grassroots uprising and political debate in Chicago.
It’s not clear that the material is definitely petcoke. Facilities along the Calumet also handle and store coal and metallurgical coke, or metcoke, and various other bulk materials.
U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Simone Mausz said that no government agency tracks barges on the Calumet or other Chicago rivers. “It’s impossible to tell how many barges go up and down the river, how many are ‘red flag,’ how many are carrying petcoke,” she said.
An industry spokesman declined to disclose what materials the barges are handling, and officials from Chicago’s port authority did not respond to requests for information on the shipments.
In the absence of information, residents see the barges as the latest wrinkle in the petcoke story, representing new concerns about the material and also about a serious lack of transparency regarding any potentially toxic materials that are moved on the river.
Chicago residents protest petroleum coke storage piles in April. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)
Marcy Juarez, a hospice worker living on Chicago’s Southeast side, says she still can’t open the windows on hot days, because of gritty black dust that blows in.
Her children have urged her to sell the house, but she’s lived there for 35 years, recently remodeled, loves the community and can’t imagine leaving.
Mari Barboza and her family still feel they can’t enjoy a barbecue outside, since the afternoon last summer when a cloud of black dust ruined the food at her mother’s 60th birthday party.
Other residents of Chicago’s Southeast side likewise say their homes, cars and patio furniture are still frequently coated in black grime, as one woman exhibited on a wipe soiled with thick black residue at a community meeting July 28.
They say their lives continue to be seriously impacted by the piles of petroleum coke (petcoke) that the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals is storing in the community, despite KCBX’s moves to comply with rules that the city health department issued in March.
Now KCBX is requesting variances from the health department rules, and in its request filed June 9 the company threatened to sue if it doesn’t get the exemptions.
Michigan’s state capitol building. (Photo by Matt Katzenberger via Creative Commons)
A Michigan lawmaker wants to expand the state’s definition of renewable energy to include more fuel made from municipal and industrial solid waste.
State Rep. Aric Nesbitt, a Republican who represents a district near Kalamazoo, is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate what he calls “unnecessary burdens on the appropriate use” of burning solid waste, and would expand the definition to include byproducts like petroleum coke.
Opponents have called it a “gerrymander” of the definition of renewable energy at a time when the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard of 10 percent from renewables is set to expire next year.
Nesbitt says it’s a logical alternative to storing the materials in landfills.
“This is a very important discussion to have,” said Nesbitt, who chairs the state House Energy and Technology Committee. “There’s a lot of picking winners and losers. I think we need to really decide on what course and what standard we need to go for.”
Nurses and others call for tougher petroleum coke restrictions at a protest near the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana. (Photo by Kari Lydersen for Midwest Energy News)
“Stunning, just stunning, just stunning,” said Sheilah Garland, shaking her head as she stared out the window of the bus rolling along a dirt road next to towering black piles of petroleum coke on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
As an organizer of National Nurses United, a labor union representing about 6,000 nurses in Chicago and 185,000 nationwide, Garland has seen a lot. She represents nurses working in grueling and traumatic situations on a daily basis. And the union has picked fights with powerful politicians, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But Garland was shocked by the piles of petcoke, about six stories high, located across the street from homes. She was also perturbed to see employees walking onsite without respiratory masks.
The nurses union has joined local residents’ fight to get petcoke transportation and storage banned in Chicago. They see it as a serious public health issue and part of their larger social justice advocacy mission.
Residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side strategize about fighting petcoke at a meeting April 15. (Photo courtesy Lloyd DeGrane)
Feeling that elected officials have betrayed them in the battle over piles of petroleum coke on the Southeast Side of Chicago, residents have vowed to take the fight to the streets and into their own hands.
In unseasonably frigid temperatures at a local park Tuesday evening, they discussed a march planned for April 26, ongoing protests and the idea of boycotting BP, whose Whiting, Indiana refinery is the source of the “petcoke” piling up along the Calumet River.
Activism by local residents catapulted the petcoke piles into national prominence last fall, with Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local Alderman John Pope and other elected officials promising to crack down on petcoke storage by companies including Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX.
In February, Emanuel and Pope announced an ordinance that would have prevented the expansion of petcoke storage and imposed requirements on existing piles.
VICE News has produced this 15-minute documentary on the controversy over storing petroleum coke on the banks of Chicago’s Calumet River.
Related content from Midwest Energy News:
First it was Detroit, now ‘PetKoch’ piling up in Chicago (Oct 14, 2013)
In Chicago, neighbors say petcoke rules full of loopholes (Jan 14, 2014)
Industry says ‘no emergency’ on petcoke, blasts Illinois rules (Jan 23, 2014)
BP faces tough questions from neighbors in Whiting, Indiana (Feb 14, 2014)
Thomas Frank, Judy Hicks, Kim Rodriguez and Darryl Harris are not happy with their neighbor – the BP Whiting refinery. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
In Chicago, anger about petroleum coke storage along the Calumet River has been aimed largely at KCBX, the subsidiary of Koch Industries that operates the facilities.
Meanwhile, the BP oil refinery that creates the petcoke across the border in Whiting, Indiana has maintained a relatively low profile.
On Wednesday, during a quarterly community meeting at the Whiting public library, BP had planned to roll out its new air emissions monitoring system. But the meeting also turned into a forum for neighbors to air issues ranging from petcoke to BP’s plans to demolish homes in the area.
Petroleum coke piles along the Calumet River in Chicago in October. (Photo by Josh Mogerman via Creative Commons)
Representatives of Illinois’s coal, oil and gas, chemical, shipping and other industries on Wednesday denounced Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed emergency rules regarding the storage of petcoke – a byproduct of tar sands refining that is sold as fuel mostly to overseas customers.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency filed the proposed rules on January 16, and after an weeklong public comment period the Illinois Pollution Control Board will decide whether to adopt the rules. (UPDATE: The board rejected the rules on Thursday.)
On a press conference call, industry representatives blasted Quinn for invoking an emergency rulemaking process when they contend there is no emergency.
Southeast Chicago residents packed a hearing on the city’s petcoke piles on Monday night. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
Chicago elected officials have vowed to crack down on the growing piles of petcoke stored by a subsidiary of Koch Industries and another company along the Calumet River on the city’s far southeast side.
But at a public hearing Monday night, local residents made clear that they don’t trust the City Council or Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take meaningful action on the issue.
They think the city’s proposed storage regulations — crafted by the public health department at the mayor’s behest — would allow piles of petcoke to keep growing and polluting in their neighborhood.
Alderman John Pope, who represents the Chicago neighborhoods most affected, and Ed Burke, a powerful alderman with an interest in clean air, have proposed two ordinances related to petcoke. One favored by Burke would ban petcoke storage in Chicago. The other, pushed by Pope, would impose site-specific regulations.
Emanuel last month rejected the idea of a citywide ban on petcoke storage, saying a state or federal solution is needed. On Monday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn proposed emergency rules on petcoke storage statewide.
The proposed city rules would cover storage of solid bulk materials including petcoke, coal, ore and other materials used as fuel. Piles of salt, construction and demolition debris, waste and recycling material would not be subject to the regulations.