Koch Brothers in Court Over Chicago's Petcoke Piles?

NRDC and Southeast Environmental Task Force Signal Toxic Waste Suit on Horizon

CHICAGO (April 28, 2014) – Environmental groups today signaled their intention to sue the owners of two sites that together hold massive mounds of oil refining waste and coal on Chicago’s Southeast Side. The Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) mailed a letter giving 90-day notice of intent to sue an array of companies owned by Charles and David Koch, including the KCBX Terminals Company, and Koch brothers themselves in federal court. 

The notice of intent to sue responds to complaints by neighbors and government authorities that dust emanating from the facilities has blackened the skies of the area, invaded homes, and polluted the Calumet River. This has raised serious concerns about the health and environmental impacts of particulate matter in the surrounding communities.

“It is thoroughly unacceptable for these piles to sit just a few hundred yards from people’s houses,” said Southeast Environmental Task Force executive director Peggy Salazar. “People are complaining about finding dust from these sites inside their homes. Black dust is coating their houses and probably their lungs. This has to stop. And hopefully this suit will achieve that.”

Petroleum coke (or petcoke) and coal are sources of dust particles that become airborne when moved or exposed to wind. Particulate matter can significantly harm human health when inhaled; exposure to particulates in sufficient levels has been associated with respiratory and cardiac problems including asthma, decreased lung function, and premature death.

In recent months, massive piles of petroleum coke have built up along the banks of the Calumet River on Chicago’s Southeast Side as BP’s highly controversial nearby refinery completes a massive expansion to process increased amounts of Canada’s heavy tar sands oil. The expansion will result in a tripling of the refinery’s petcoke production. Two Koch-owned sites (a South site near 108th Street and a North site at 100th Street) collect the petcoke and other materials in large, uncovered piles which have grown to four and five stories in height at times.

“It is abundantly clear that conditions around these piles constitute a serious threat to the present  and future welfare and livability of the community  that would not be acceptable in most any neighborhood in the country,” said Henry Henderson, NRDC’s Midwest Director and the founding Commissioner of the Environment for the City of Chicago. “Why should people be forced to accept it on the Southeast Side? These companies should not be allowed to turn the area into an environmental sacrifice zone. We’ve stopped dumping mounds of garbage and toxic waste in the area after years of litigation, legislation and costly remediation of past environmental destruction—it is time to put an end to this latest blight on Chicago too. If we have to go to court to get it done, so be it.”

SETF and NRDC plan to ask a Court to order Koch to remedy the petcoke piles’ health and environmental threats under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), by, among other things, funding studies to better characterize the hazards these sites present to Southeast Side residents and the environment and by taking steps to better contain threatened releases of petroleum coke and coal dusts from the sites and the vehicles that serve them.  RCRA is one of America’s most important public laws on the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. It empowers citizens to appeal directly to federal courts for protection when other efforts have failed to remedy serious pollution hazards.

Petcoke and Coal at the Koch Sites

Publicly available aerial photographs and satellite views of the Koch sites show that they are almost completely blackened with deposits of bulk materials including petcoke and coal. Petroleum coke and coal particles are likely to carry toxic substances, including some known neurotoxins and human carcinogens. The State of Illinois sued KCBX Terminals Company in November 2013 for releasing petroleum coke and coal dusts from the South site into the surrounding neighborhoods, and sued KCBX Terminals Company again in March 2014 for storing petroleum coke and coal at the North site in a manner that does not prevent water polluted with land deposits of those materials from flowing into the Calumet River.

Koch uses sprinklers mounted on poles to wet down its piles, but neighbors have complained that these measures are ineffective to prevent dust from escaping the sites and entering surrounding air, land, and water.

Chicago’s Southeast Side

The piles sit in an area in transition. Formerly dominated by massive steel mills which employed hundreds of thousands of workers, the predominantly working-class Latino/Hispanic and African-American communities surrounding the sites have decades of experience battling environmental hazards. They have fought against concentrated solid waste disposal in the area, as well as ill-conceived energy and incineration projects that threatened to turn the area into an environmental sacrifice zone. Many of the piles’ neighbors hope for a greener, safer, prosperous future that takes better advantage of the area’s location next to the Calumet River, wetlands, open space and the environmental gem of the region, Lake Michigan.

The Notice Letter is available at http://docs.nrdc.org/energy/files/ene_14042801a.pdf


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