Petcoke Blight Tells Bigger Story About Chicago's Waterways

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There has been a hopeful outcry over the mounds of oil-refining waste blighting homes near the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side. The piles of petcoke have received public denunciation in strongly worded editorials from the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times; Illinois' attorney general is suing; so is the city; the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has issued citations; and the U.S. EPA is putting up air monitors to better understand the nature of the soot coating homes, and perhaps lungs, throughout the area.

Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Robin Kelly have toured the area and are poised for action in Washington. We remain hopeful that the problem will be addressed soon to give beleaguered community members relief from the potentially toxic onslaught.

But are those big piles a small sign of larger things to come?

Petcoke is the ashy remnant of oil refining. Once everything of value is pulled from petroleum, this powder of sulfur, carbon and heavy metals is left over. With Illinois and nearby northwest Indiana serving as ground zero for super-heavy Canadian tar sands refining, which is known to kick out massively increased amounts of petcoke due to its sludgy, sulfurous properties, we already are awash in the stuff. And there is a lot more on the way.

Looking west from the Skyway, the petcoke piles dominate a long stretch of the Calumet River. The piles, which loom near homes, parks and schools, are even more impressive (or oppressive?) when viewed at ground level. BP's refinery in Whiting, Ind., soon will flip the switch on new equipment that will triple the refinery's petcoke production, kicking out 6,000 tons of it every day.


The landscape along Chicago's waterways has been headed for some kind of change long before the petcoke started piling up in mini-mountains. Movement of goods along them has been on a downward trend in terms of percentage of commerce moving through the region in recent decades — something accentuated with the closure of Chicago's controversial Fisk and Crawford generating stations (as well as the nearby Stateline plant in Indiana), which limits what previously had been one of the biggest products plying our waters by tonnage: coal.

As the waterways are configured now, physical limitations keep them a marginal mover of low-value bulk commodities. And they are too bendy and narrow to support a shift to containerized shipping. So when the city talks about revitalizing the Port of Chicago, what sort of goods do they envision coming through? We would hope that the plan does not include petcoke picking up the slack left by the departure of coal.

Economic revitalization of our region's waterways is critical, but the smart way to go about that is to identify their highest and best use and encourage that – uses such as recreation, public open space and service businesses that contribute to both economic growth and a more attractive environment — as opposed to a plan that adds to more unsightly and potentially dangerous mounds of waste.

The Southeast Side long has fought against being an environmental “sacrifice zone.” Residents again are girding for battle over petcoke piles. These communities long have been burdened by industrial pollution but in recent years have had high hopes for a healthier future as the area's economy has shifted.

How we address this blight may offer clues for how this city will move forward: Dealing with the petcoke mounds quickly and smartly presents an opportunity to re-envision the Southeast Side and encourage investment and development that uplifts and sustains the area. And that, in turn, can help the entire city by swelling tax rolls and cleaning up the most persistently dirty air in town.

Or . . . we can just put a tarp over them and hope that nobody notices the plight of our neighbors and broken status quo on our waterways.

Mr. Emanuel's forceful statements admitting that the city and state have let us down in dealing with this influx are heartening. And regulations the city is due to release could go a long way toward addressing the immediate problem of dangerous particulate matter. That action is laudatory but will not go far enough for people in the neighborhood who don't want to simply cover up the oil industry mess in their midst – they wish to be free of it to continue pushing for the neighborhood's revival.


Originally published as an Op-Ed in Crain's Chicago Business jointly signed with Southeast Environmental Task Force Executive Director Peggy Salazar on January 3, 2014. 

Petcoke Piles Loom Near the Skyway image by jmogs via Flickr.