Petcoke Piles: We should all stand up for Chicago's Southeast Side

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As Commissioner for the Environment for the City of Chicago back in the 90’s, I spent a lot of time dealing with issues on the Southeast Side. It is a mix of highly diverse neighborhoods surrounded by areas thick with industry, and the scars of America’s post-industrial realities, such as the huge swathes of empty acres left by the now departed steel mills that were once the economic might of America and the lifeblood of the community. While I was in City Hall, we were dealing with a variety of “waste” issues in the area: illegal dumping, abandoned factories, contaminated soil and wetlands.

And there was the seriously flawed mindset that seized many public officials, business interests and “planners” who saw only a waste land on Chicago’s Southeast Side, concluding that the highest and best use of which was a vast sacrifice zone, with giant incinerators, expanded landfills, waste processing and associated waste facilities, to be plunked down in former factory fields, open space and wetlands.

Fortunately, the community was able to make the case for a renewal of the area as a thriving community, rather than a sacrifice zone. For instance, the abandoned steel mill properties could be cleaned and redeveloped--like the former LTV property that is now a thriving supplier park supporting business in the community such as the adjacent Ford Motor plant on the Calumet River. Similarly, the economic and ecological value of the web of wetlands and waterways at the center of the community were shown to be a rich asset for the region, providing natural habitat for many diverse species, a natural resource for gathering water, cleaning it, and returning it to the Great Lakes. Private and public funding was assembled, and a new vision of investment and renewal for people and other living things began to take hold and grow on the Southeast Side.

But the fact is, the struggle to reclaim an area tagged as a “sacrifice zone” is never over, and we see this today as the destructive waste impact of filthy Canadian tar sands industry reaches all the way into the Southeast Side of Chicago, establishing an outpost along the Calumet River. As the black piles that fueled Chicago’s recently shuttered dirty coal plants and long-closed steel mills have begun to shrink, something new is coming to take their place. Petcoke. Lots of it. I blogged about the mounds of filth last week, and am glad to see the public spotlight is now shining on the problem in a big way.

Elizabeth Brackett with “Chicago Tonight,” the Chicago Tribune’s award-winning environment reporter Michael Hawthorne and Kari Lydersen with Midwest Energy News have all dug into the story—which is not easy given the complete lack of transparency about petcoke, how it is spreading into our neighborhoods, where the stuff is going, how it will be used, and how the public health and safety will be protected from the impacts of this waste stream. The primary proposal for use of petcoke is as a substitute for coal----a dirtier, nastier and a doubling down on fossil fuels when we know this threatens our shared future (see my colleague Meleah Geertsma’s blog for more detail on that issue).

The issue of petcoke is just beginning to make itself known. Part of the expansion of the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana to take Canadian tar sands is the addition of the world’s second largest coker. That is the device that spews petcoke out of the system. This coker is not fully online yet, but the early results are growing piles of petcoke spread along the banks of the Calumet River, some as tall as five stories, and open to the air, wind and elements. The neighbors have awoken to see these growing piles, blowing into their yards, through their windows and settling on their property. They are wise to be concerned, and to sound the alarm now. Those tall piles may get a lot taller when the refinery and coker really get humming, belching out the 6,000 tons of petcoke daily, as predicted.

NRDC is working with Southeast Environmental Task Force on the issue. The Task Force is a strong voice for the people on the Southeast Side, having stood strong for the future of the community as a safe and good place to live, successfully stopping the growth of landfills and incinerators, with a practical vision for a clean environment and sustainable economy. While they would love to see the piles go away, their ask is more modest: contain and enclose the piles from the wind and elements, so the dust doesn’t pollute their homes, air and water.  This is done in other states and communities. The Southeast Side deserves no less. Its not like this is an official sacrifice zone…

As we mull the mess on the Calumet, we should also ponder the implications of using petcoke as an even dirtier coal substitute around the world. These are critical considerations now, and the need to address them will only grow, as the oil barons in Alberta, Canada, where the tar sands originates, attempt to triple production of tar sands in the next 15 years.

My ask may be bigger than simply enclosing petcoke piles…like, perhaps we should move away from our destructive addiction to dirty fuels, and invest now in a clean energy future, with jobs, safety and resilience for our communities… But for now, it is heartening to see strong communities standup for their rights and dignity as citizens, and find brave voices in the media care about what is happening to citizens on the Southeast Side, and use their skills as journalists to engage a real public discussion of our shared interests.

The View from 106th Street Bridge image by jmogs via Flickr