Durbin and Kelly: Petcoke is Everyone's Problem, Not Just Chicago and Detroit

Petcoke piles on Chicago's Southeast Side Photo courtesy of People's World/Flickr


Like every protracted campaign, the battle to defeat the blight of petcoke on Chicago's Southeast Side has had good and bad days. Especially for the neighborhood where the petcoke is dumped.

A couple weeks ago, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Robin Kelly supplied one of the good days. They were in town to meet with neighbors in the offices of new 10th Ward Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza for an update on the petcoke problem and to talk about possible legislation in the US House and Senate that could bring better control over petcoke (not to mention relief to afflicted communities). They expressed a clear commitment to helping the Southeast Side of Chicago fight against the mounds of oil refining waste that blight the neighborhood. And more than this, to making sure other communities don't have to go through the same destructive mess.

This is key, because petcoke is not a "Chicago Problem."

When the piles popped up in Michigan, it was not just a "Detroit Problem."

Petcoke is a national problem.

What the neighbors in Chicago are fighting on the Southeast Side is not unique to their area. Like giant, nasty oily blemishes, petcoke piles could pop up anywhere.

On the Southeast Side of Chicago, the neighbors were uniquely prepared for this battle. They have, despite the odds, fought long and hard to keep environmental degradation at bay, so they were ready to push back against BP and the Koch Brothers. Durbin and Kelly recognize that other communities around the country may not be equipped to do the same.

There is a lot of petcoke being produced in America, and a lot more is coming. The material is the result of all types of oil refining--but as pipelines and trains deliver more and more tar sands crude to this country from Canada, we can expect to see growing black mounds of petcoke in communities across the nation. Refining that heavy, sludgy oil produces significantly more petcoke than conventional crude oil. As an example, the BP refinery in nearby Whiting, Indiana (where much of the material blighting Chicago has come from) tripled its production of petcoke after expanding to process more of this heavy, "unconventional" oil. It now produces 6,000 tons of petcoke every day. More than 2.2 million tons annually. Across the country, petcoke production has nearly doubled since 2000.

All of that gunk needs to go somewhere. As the messes in Detroit and Chicago demonstrate, it shouldn't be in the midst of our communities.

That is what makes federal standards on holding and transporting this material so necessary. Thanks to the hard work and effective advocacy of neighbors, the millions of tons of petcoke from Indiana now head south to Paducah rather than Chicago. Is the Blue Grass State ready for the wave of dust coming? I don't know, but I hope that Kentucky's Congressional delegation can help ensure other towns don't have to fight the way we have here, and that the millions of tons of petcoke being produced are being moved and stored in a way that avoids impacting the communities around them.

Hopefully, they will also look to the source of the problem. Unless we want to see more communities in America blighted like this, we have to say no to tar sands projects like Keystone XL and the Flanagan pipeline. These black mounds are what happen when you scrape the bottom of the barrel and stand as another reminder that we have to get serious about getting off of oil.



Senator Durbin and Representative Kelly's engagement on the issue means a lot to Chicagoans. Seeing them personally checking in on the issue and offering solutions to protect our town is appreciated. Now it's time for the rest of the folks in DC to do the same for the rest of the nation. Before the piles blight another burgh.

About the Authors

Henry Henderson

Director, Midwest program

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