Residents of Chicago's Southeast Side say Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal introduced this week to ban new or expanded petcoke facilities in the city does not go far enough.
At a packed community meeting Thursday night, residents of East Side, South Deering and other far Southeast Side neighborhoods said they want the petcoke piles stored near their homes to completely disappear.
"We want to be very clear that moving forward, our demands are that the petcoke piles are completely removed, not enclosed," Olga Bautista with the Southeast Side Coalition Against Petcoke said at the meeting, held at the Eastside Methodist Church.
Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining that can pollute the air and water. It is being stored at sites along the banks of the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side.
For some time now, Southeast Side residents have documented black dust from the uncovered petcoke mounds blowing into their communities and getting into their homes.
"I supposedly have white windows, you can never tell that they’re white," said Carol Granados, who lives on 103rd Street, which is not far from a petcoke facility owned by KCBX Terminals Company.
KCBX, which is controlled by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has two sites in the area where petcoke is stockpiled. The petcoke is transported to KCBX from a BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana.
Beemsterboer Slag Corp, another firm that runs a petcoke facility on the Southeast Side, agreed in December to remove piles of the gritty substance from Chicago and no longer accept, handle or store the oil refining byproduct. This move from Beemsterboer, based in Hammond, Indiana, followed a lawsuit filed against the company by the city of Chicago and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Madigan has also filed a lawsuit against KCBX's south site, 10730 S. Burley Ave., over alleged air pollution violations. KCBX, which maintains that it already has safeguards in place to keep the petcoke under control, is asking the judge to dismiss the case.
At Thursday's neighborhood meting, Skip Gonsoulin, community outreach liaison for the Illinois Attorney General's Office, said a hearing regarding KCBX's motion to dismiss is scheduled for March 27.
"Assuming the the judge denies a motion, we will continue with the litigation process," Gonsoulin told the audience.
On the topic of air pollution, an air quality monitor installed at George Washington High School has the highest readings of ambient levels of fine particulate matter, or dust, in the Chicago area, explained Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. When breathed in, the particles can get into the lungs and enter the blood stream, leading to problems like asthma, strokes and heart attacks, he said.
The state measures these atmospheric dust levels in the Chicago metro area and across Illinois.
"The last three-year period that (the state) had full data for, the highest-rated monitor in the Chicago area was the one in Washington High School," Urbaszewski said. “Some of the [industrial] activity that is going on is probably contributing to that. How much? I can't tell you, but it is anomalous and begs an explanation."
Meanwhile, the attorney general this week filed a second lawsuit against KCBX over alleged water pollution and waste violations at the company's north terminal, 3259 E. 100th St.
Kate Koval with the Southeast Side Coalition Against Petcoke applauded the attorney general's latest lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday.
"We have really been focused on air quality a lot and not focusing on water quality," Koval told Progress Illinois. "When I talked to our own alderman [Ald. John Pope], he told me that he believes the nature of the Calumet River is to be industrial, and I think that’s crazy ... We oftentimes don’t think of the Calumet River as a natural resource, and so we need to start as a community shifting our perspective and how we interact with the Calumet River ... There could be a river walk. I could walk my dog next to the river ... That’s radical for us, and I think that we need to go there."
The attention from state and local politicians on petcoke started to pick up following a joint lawsuit filed by four Chicago families at the end of October against companies that house the material in the city.
In early November, Ald. Ed Burke (14th) proposed legislation in the Chicago City Council that would have fully banned petcoke in the city. Emanuel, however, shot down that idea and instead called on the city's department of public health to draft regulations designed to limit emissions that come from petcoke. Now, Emanuel's latest ordinance introduced in the city council this week looks to ban new petcoke facilities from opening in the city and prevent existing sites from expanding. Burke and Ald. John Pope (10th), who represents the area, have co-sponsored the ordinance.
But Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said the community is very concerned about the petcoke mounds staying put, regardless if facilities can expand or not.
"If they are allowed to stay there, the land around that location is open. (The companies) can build any type of plant they want," Salazar said. "The petcoke will then be readily available for them. When we say, 'We don’t want petcoke here,' that’s why. Because that petcoke opens the doors ... to other possibilities. We don’t want that. We want to close that door. We want the petcoke out of here."
Community member Granados also pointed out that petcoke can be combustible.
"The city wants them to enclose this. Has anybody made the city aware of how dangerous this is," she asked. "It becomes highly explosive if it's enclosed, so we need to let the mayor know that is not a solution. I don’t want my house being blown up or my neighbors or any body else in the community."
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has also announced statewide petcoke regulations. The proposed rules, however, have to go through the formal rule-making process because the Illinois Pollution Control Board voted down the governor's proposal for emergency petcoke regulations in late January.
Additionally, Madigan and State Rep. Barbara Flynn-Currie (D-Chicago) filed proposed state legislation last month requiring that petcoke and other refinery material be completely covered at facilities within 5,000 feet of neighborhoods and other "vulnerable populations."
Under the proposed measure, petcoke and coal have be fully enclosed when moving to and from storage facilities on trucks, barges and other modes of transportation. And the material would have to be loaded and unloaded inside.
"We don’t want trucks carrying the petcoke," Bautista added. "I was behind a truck yesterday that was open. It was so full of soot that I couldn’t even make out the license plate, so I couldn’t even report it."
The city council's zoning committee is expected to discuss Emanuel's recent petcoke ordinance at its March 24 meeting. Residents at Thurday's petcoke town hall said they plan on testifying at the committee meeting.
Environmentalists and Southeast Side residents are also set to hold a "march for environmental justice" slated for April 26. The march includes a stop at Ald. Pope's office to demand a city ordinance that would outright ban petcoke in Chicago. The group will also protest near the petcoke piles at KCBX's terminal entrance by 108th Street and Burley Avenue.