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.

Petcoke snaking through the neighborhood, Southeast Side, Chicago, 2015

Credit: 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
Credit: 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
Credit: 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
Credit: Oliver Sann and Beate Geissler

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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