The Dusty City

Chicago is trying to limit how much petcoke the tar sands industry moves (and spreads) around town.

February 03, 2015

For two decades, mounds of black dust have been piling up on Chicago’s Southeast Side. The dust is petroleum coke, a byproduct of an Indiana oil refinery that’s processing more crude than ever before from Canada’s tar sands. The “petcoke” moves out by train, truck, and barge, eventually to be burned as fuel by energy producers around the world. In the meantime, it blows over the surrounding neighborhood.

The petcoke covers Little League fields, houses, and decks, and has been worrying residents about potential health consequences. Two weeks ago, the city council voted to cap the amount of petcoke the industry is allowed to move through the city, restricting how large its operations can grow. Chicago’s decision of how much petcoke at two facilities owned by KCBX—a company controlled by the Koch brothers—can heap up is expected by the end of March.

Southeast Side residents began speaking out against the dust piles last year, leading Mayor Rahm Emanuel to say he would drive the petcoke companies out of town. That hasn’t happened. While the city has taken some steps to rein in the industry, community members and advocacy groups (including NRDC, which publishes Earthwire) say no amount of petcoke is acceptable.

Photo: Josh MogermanA petcoke pile on the Calumet River on Chicago's South Side.

“It collects on homes and cars. It prevents people from being able to enjoy outdoor spaces. It impedes economic development. It doesn’t bring in jobs. It precludes other industries and nice things like shops and cafés from moving into the Southeast Side,” said Lydia Jordan, who represented the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke at a zoning committee meeting last month. “Once the city acknowledges these harms, how can the commissioner set any limit other than zero?”

A study commissioned by the city last March shows that petcoke blows off the piles and onto the neighborhood’s sidewalks, and that the emissions could actually be higher than those of any other material in the area, including coal and slag. 

So far the city has been trying to reduce petcoke pollution by limiting the height of the piles (to 35 feet) and the footprints of the facilities, banning new storage areas within city limits and mandating that the piles be covered by mid-2016. KCBX will start building a shed this coming fall, but the company is threatening to sue Chicago, saying it can’t finish the enclosure before mid-2017 at the earliest. [UPDATE 2/17/15: The City of Chicago decided yesterday not to grant KCBX a 14-month extension to cover their petcoke piles.] 

“KCBX might be putting its dirty industry inside a shed, but this is still a crudification of the neighborhood,” Henry Henderson, NRDC’s Midwest director and Chicago’s former environmental commissioner, told the Chicago Tribune.

Environmental consultants hired by KCBX testified at the zoning meeting that the piles aren’t polluting the neighborhood at harmful levels, so further restrictions aren’t necessary. Studies on how petcoke may be affecting the health of Chicagoans haven’t yet been conducted, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the dust may cause shortness of breath, wheezing, and a worse case of asthma.

“It is clear that our quality of life, if not our health, is negatively impacted,” Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said at the zoning meeting.

As more and more tar sands oil comes down from Canada, other Midwestern cities will be watching how Chicago handles its petcoke problem. If the industry can’t send their waste to that city, it’ll look elsewhere. In Detroit, for example, officials outlawed petcoke last summer. Ever since, the energy companies have been trying to send the stuff to the suburbs instead.

Henderson likens it to a game of whack-a-mole, as regulators and communities across the region wait and see where petcoke piles will pop up next. For now, Chicago’s Southeast Side is just asking for a bigger mallet.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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