Sometimes Art Has to Get Gritty—Especially When Big Oil Provides the Muse

A new exhibit displays the many forms of petcoke and the Chicagoans determined to rid it from their communities.

August 10, 2016
Petcoke snaking through the neighborhood, Southeast Side, Chicago, 2015

Terry Evans

For two decades, Chicago had a petcoke problem. Two companies were hoarding petroleum coke, a by-product of oil refining used to fuel power plants in countries with lax environmental laws. Piles of the black dust collected on the South Side. Collectively, they occupied 150 acres at their largest. Reaching up to 60 feet high at times, the mounds blighted the community’s landscape. But from above, one could witness the petcoke’s true mark on the land and its people: the gray wind of particulates swirling around these man-made mountains that likely found their way into the lungs of nearby residents.

Visitors to Columbia College Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography can now catch this aerial perspective for free. The “Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy” exhibit, supported by NRDC (which publishes onEarth) and the Southeast Environmental Task Force, runs through October 9.

Petcoke piles with sprinklers at KCBX site on Calumet River, 2014

Terry Evans

Ten artists contributed to the show, including Terry Evans, who shot her bird’s-eye views of petcoke holding facilities from a helicopter. Brian Holmes’s interactive map, titled Petropolis, pinpoints the refineries, ports, and railroads where companies—Beemsterboer Slag Corp and KCBX Terminals, a Koch brothers subsidiary—transported and stored petcoke. They continue to move the stuff around Chicago, and you can take a tour with artist Rozalinda Borcilӑ that follows the petroleum supply chain through the city.

There are some bright spots on the map, too. Marked with the symbol of Break Free Midwest, a group dedicated to loosening the grip fossil fuels have on our society, are the sites where community members affected by the toxic dust blowing onto their houses took action. They spoke out at City Hall meetings and protested in the streets. And though their battle continues, they are starting to see results. Just last year, the companies essentially shuttered their petcoke storage facilities within city limits. (KCBX is still moving the material through one of its sites.) 

A Library of Tears, 2016

Claire Pentecost

It is the voices of these activists that you hear from overhead speakers as you walk through part of the exhibit. Portraits taken by Evans help tell their story. The faces on the walls are not smiling. Alberto Rincon of the Chicago South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, says they “remain angered over the lifelong exposure to hazardous waste.”

Chicago, of course, isn’t the only place that could inspire such an exhibit. The petcoke industry has tendrils that stretch all over the country, as the short film Midstream at Twilight by Steve Rowell documents. For his work, Rowell followed petcoke’s path from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to a shipping terminal in Long Beach, California. Communities in Oakland and Detroit have also stood up to the petcoke facilities polluting their neighborhoods.

As big a problem as petcoke is, it’s a symptom of a much larger, insidious condition: our addiction to fossil fuels. Just take a look at the work of artists Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, whose image Methadone constructs a metaphor comparing the red liquid drug, a treatment for heroin addicts, to what we need to kick our crippling dependency on hydrocarbons.

Methadone, 2016

Oliver Sann and Beate Geissler


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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