Striking Images Tell of Chicago's Petcoke Problem

Credit: One of Terry Evans' powerful aerial photos from the Chicago Magazine gallery, used with permission via screenshot.

We have spent a lot of time talking about Chicago's petcoke problem in the last couple of years.

But Chicago Magazine and Curbed Chicago have posted some gobsmacking stuff of late that conveys the scope, scale and nature of the oil refining waste problem on the Southeast Side in utterly dramatic fashion. And reinforce the old adage about pictures and a thousand words...

Earlier this month, AJ Latrace had the brilliant idea of overlaying Google Earth images of two petcoke sites owned by the Koch-brothers' affiliated company KCBX over well-known and beloved Chicago attractions. The simple slider functionality he built into his excellent Curbed Chicago poststrikingly reinforces its title: "Just How Big Are Chicago's Petcoke Piles? They're Enormous." Indeed they are...and especially so when superimposed over the Art Institute, Grant Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, two different universities and the largest convention facility in the Western Hemisphere (McCormick Place). Even though I've stood at the edge of the KCBX sites many times, I was still taken aback the first time I saw this post.

Not to be outdone, Chicago Magazine devotes 10 glossy pages in its August issue to a fantastic gallery of petcoke pics from the Guggenheim fellow, Terry Evans. The photo essay beautifully and efficiently describes the nature of the problem on the Southeast Side, combining Evans' trademark aerial shots to convey the scale of these facilities and proximity to the community, with ground-level photos painfully illustrating the impact that neighbors are feeling. It's a remarkably visceral spread that will undoubtedly make many in the region who have been unaware of the Southeast Side's struggles take notice.

And all of this attention comes at an important time.

The neighbors have not backed down from BP, the Koch Brothers or any of the other petcoke producers sending their crud down the Calumet. In fact, they are winning. The City of Chicago has taken important steps towards relieving the Windy City of this dusty blight: it has essentially banished petcoke from one of KCBX's sites, and will push out the piles from the other by this time next summer. But the issue is not yet solved, as KCBX has announced plans to use that site as a direct transfer facility that would shift the material from trucks and trains to barges and ships. The City must still determine how much petcoke and coal can move through that site (right now, it is permitted by the State of Illinois to handle 11,000,000 tons annually). The neighbors are lobbying to make that number zero. It is hard to look at the galling images in Curbed and Chicago Magazine and not feel the same. The neighbors want petcoke out. And we are standing with them.

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