Petcoke Piles on the Calumet: Chicago's newest tar sands blight

Petcoke Piles on the Calumet by jmogs via Flickr

BP’s other very messy shoe is dropping now. With the expansion of their Whiting Refinery into one of the biggest tar sands processors on the planet, the increases in toxins dumped into the waters of Lake Michigan and airshed of Chicago and Northwest Indiana have triggered public outrage. But now a new pollution stream out of the facility is making itself known along the banks of the Calumet River.


Lots and lots and lots of petcoke, a coal-like waste product that comes in high volumes from tar sands refining, is being dumped in massive piles near homes on Chicago’s southeast side. These neighborhoods are already suffering from an array of unfair environmental burdens, including long-standing coal piles that have sent dangerous wind-whipped particulate matter into the surrounding areas. Now that the coal piles are disappearing (in no small part due to the closure of the nearby Stateline coal plant and its Chicago cohorts Fisk and Crawford), they are being replaced with five-story mounds of petcoke, a crumbly material rich in heavy metals that is even more prone to blowing.

BP Whiting is now the second biggest producer of petcoke amongst American refineries. They will be spitting out 6,000 tons of the stuff a day; more than 2 million tons annually. But BP is hardly alone. The issue of petcoke hit the national media spotlight when piles started showing up along the Detroit River after a similar expansion of tar sands refining began at the nearby Marathon refinery. And doesn’t stop in these two places: new regulatory documents point to similar issues in Lima and Toledo, Ohio (the Detroit piles ended up somewhere in Ohio…nobody is saying exactly where).

Is this the vision Big Oil has for the cities of the Great Lakes? Is this the transformation that Chicago city officials have in mind when they talk about a revitalized river system and investments in our port—a step back to the worst messes of our town’s industrial past? Make no mistake, this is a problem. And it is one that will be growing quickly as region’s tar sands refinery expansion projects come online.

The vigilant and effective advocates of the Southeast Environmental Task Force were the first to sound the alarm on the Calumet piles. My staffers recently took a boat tour with them to survey the issue. The video below confirms some of the residents’ concerns: dust blowing off the piles into the air and caking the surface of the river.

We will be working with the Task Force to find ways to address the mess. As will a significant coalition of Chicago’s environmental community that are already lined up and working on the issue with us.  What we see on the Southeast side requires attention, but  the need for protective new regulations goes far beyond the area. There are other tar sands refineries in Illinois and the state must pay attention. Moreover, this is just another expansion to the already outsized environmental impacts of Alberta’s tar sands. It doesn’t stop with the direct climate, water and air pollution; but now extends to blighted neighborhoods and potentially re-fueled dirty energy facilities that will be burning this even dirtier and sadly plentiful new fuel source. There are an array of choices being made on the energy landscape right now which address tar sands and North American communities--so far, they have been mostly bad...

Petcoke Piles on the Calumet image by jmogs via Flickr

About the Authors

Henry Henderson

Director, Midwest program

Join Us