Registered nurses and community activists rallied at Chicago's City Hall Monday afternoon, demanding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and council members install an immediate moratorium on all petcoke operations in the city.
Chanting "Moratorium now!", dozens of Southeast Side residents, members of National Nurses United and other allies delivered a letter to the mayor's office, urging Chicago's elected officials to "cease all petcoke operations, transport and storage within the city until it is learned what impact petcoke has on the health of Chicagoans or until the piles are enclosed."
A representative from the mayor's office accepted the letter.
Petcoke, which is a thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining that can pollute the air and water, is being stored in large mounds along the banks of the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side. Residents who live near the three Southeast Side petcoke storage facilities say dust from the uncovered piles is blowing into their communities, coating their homes and making them sick.
"We can't open the windows [because] of all the dark dust that comes into the house," said Southeast Side resident Maria Rosas, speaking through a translator.
Last month, the Chicago City Council approved Emanuel's revised ordinance to place tougher regulations on petcoke stored in the city. Under the measure, new petcoke storage facilities are prohibited from opening in Chicago and existing sites cannot expand. The Chicago Department of Public Health has additional regulations in place that require petcoke operators to fully enclose their storage piles within a two-year period.
The activists assert that the recently-approved petcoke ordinance does not go far enough, because it "allows facilities to store open piles of petcoke for the next two years, thus permitting petcoke particles to blow across Chicago communities causing health problems for our citizens," their letter reads.
Rolanda Watson-Clark, a registered nurse who works at the Cook County Robbins Health Center, said petcoke dust can be harmful to the lungs and heart when inhaled.
"Petcoke contains a mix of chemicals including heavy metals, sulfur, carbon and volatiles, but even if you set the chemical aside — the dust particle size is also a killer," she said.
The small particles can get deep into the lungs and possibly the bloodstream, leading to problems like aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, non-fatal heart attacks and other negative health effects, she said.
"While we are glad that the city council took some measures to curb the effects of these petcoke piles, we believe that our patients and communities can't afford to wait two years for the relief," Watson-Clark stressed.
In addition to National Nurses United, other groups that signed the letter for a petcoke moratorium include the Alliance for Community Services, the Chicago chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force.
Peggy Salazar with the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force said the community is disappointed by Emanuel because "he promised us that he was going to address this problem and he would take care of it" when he visited the Southeast Side last year.
"Well those were tough, tough words but there wasn't a whole lot of action behind them," she said.
A mayoral spokesperson could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Earlier this morning, the group of activists took a bus tour of the Southeast Side petcoke piles. Two of the Southeast Side petcoke storage sites are operated by North Dakota-based KCBX Terminals Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc., a large American multinational corporation run by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch.
Indiana-based Beemsterboer Slag Corp. operates the third facility. The petcoke mounds piled along the banks of the Calumet River were largely transported there from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana. The BP Whiting facility already produces approximately 700,000 tons of petcoke annually, and that amount is expected to triple to more than 2 million tons in the coming year due to an increased flow of oil from Canada and recent upgrades made at the refinery.
Monica Lloyd, a registered nurse at Jackson Park Hospital and Medical Center on the city's South Side, was among those on the petcoke tour.
"I am very overwhelmed with anger and concern about what I saw," she stressed. "I saw first hand the 6-story high ... petcoke piles open to the air this morning."
"How can any person of authority or delegated power, in this instance our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the city council, play roulette with the health of Chicagoans and knowingly permit these dangerous petcoke operations to continue," Lloyd asked.
Robert Jones, pastor at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church on the city's near South Side, also viewed the petcoke mounds today.
"I've seen the petcoke piles. I also saw how just a mere 200 yards away are playgrounds that the children play in when the wind is blowing," he said. "I saw the discoloration on the houses, and if the houses are discolored, what colors are the lungs of the young people and the adults in the community? It is injustice. It is economic injustice. It's environmental injustice and it's heath injustice, and we call for that [petcoke] moratorium."
Petcoke is commonly used as a fuel source in power plants. It is also a component in the aluminum, steel and cement making process.
Mark Denzler, vice president and COO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, issued this statement in response to today's petcoke protest at City Hall:
Placing a moratorium on a non-toxic substance like petroleum coke would unnecessarily affect manufacturing jobs across Illinois and the region. Petcoke is not a waste material, it’s a valued commodity that is intentionally produced and significantly utilized by companies engaged in the manufacturing, mining, refining, electric generation and transportation sectors. Illinois needs more jobs and economic development – there is reason for optimism because we’ve recently seen our first small increase of manufacturing jobs in Illinois in more than a decade, but creating needless barriers to access petcoke could help reverse that trend.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) joined the nurses and activists at City Hall in their call for a petcoke moratorium. Fioretti was the sole alderman to vote 'no' on the petcoke ordinance at last month's council meeting. He wants to see an outright ban on the material in Chicago, but city law department officials have said such a move would have a hard time surviving a legal challenge.
"We're not talking 6-foot or 8-foot piles. We're talking between 6-story and 8-story piles of this byproduct from BP ... from across the border," the alderman said. "Keep it over there. Bring it to your own home. Put it in your own backyard, not here on the Southeast Side."
Salazar said Southeast Side residents and their allies plan to continue to call for a petcoke moratorium until the piles are enclosed or a health analysis has be done to determine the potential effects of the gritty substance on area residents.
"The Southeast Side is not going to settle for being ignored," she warned. "We will come back here as many times as we have to until we get what we deserve."