Southeast Side Chicagoans are sounding the alarm on the latest environmental and public safety issue impacting their communities — an alleged uptick in trains transporting uncovered piles of petcoke, a byproduct of oil refining.
Over the past two months, some Southeast Side residents say they have noticed increased train traffic on old rail lines in the Hegewisch community that have previously been unused for many years. The trains, many of which pull more than 100 cars, are moving in and out of the area day and night, said Tom Shepherd of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
Shepherd said the trains are carrying unenclosed petcoke, which is mostly coming from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana and stockpiled at storage facilities along the Calumet River on Chicago's far Southeast Side.
Peggy Salazar, also with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said the influx of petcoke being moved by rail to the Southeast Side is the result of ramped up petcoke production at the BP refinery due to recent upgrades at the facility and an increased flow of oil from Canada.
Members of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Shepherd said, have observed trains "parked one after another waiting to get in to unload" at a Southeast Side petcoke storage facility operated by KCBX Terminals Company, which is controlled by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
"What seems to have happened is that the BP refinery has switched from using a lot of trucks, that rumble through the neighborhood bringing petcoke, to rail," Shepherd said.
The old railroad line in question runs north and south through the Hegewisch neighborhood just east of Green Bay Avenue, said East Side resident Guillermo Rodriguez with the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke. About two months ago, Rodriguez noticed a new stretch of train tracks had been installed that connect to the main line near 134th Street. The addition made to the old tracks, which residents believe are possibly owned by the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, essentially allows trains coming from the BP refinery to take a short cut to get to the Southeast Side, Shepherd said. A representative from Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad did not return Progress Illinois' request for comment for this story.
In addition to the surge of trains carrying uncovered petcoke, Rodriguez said he has also seen an increase in petroleum tankers coming through the area by rail. Residents are distraught about possible train accidents and whether the city is equipped to handle an emergency involving petroleum tankers or rail cars carrying petcoke.
Olga Bautista with the Southeast Coalition to Ban Petcoke said she and a neighbor recently visited three firehouses on the Southeast Side to discuss the issue with the Chicago Fire Department.
"They don’t know anything about the tracks being upgraded," she said. "If there's an accident; if there's a train (explosion); if there's a derailment, what then?"
Rodriguez added that the city needs "to tell us what their plan of attack is ... for emergencies."
"We've seen the petroleum tankers and we've seen the uncovered petcoke, and we're looking for answers," he stressed.
The Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke are hosting a community meeting on the issue tonight at 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at St. Columba Social Center, 13319 S. Green Bay Ave.
Local Ald. John Pope (10th) is expected to attend the meeting. Rodriguez said residents alerted Pope of the train issue about two months ago, but have yet to have their questions answered. Pope could not immediately be reached for comment.
Salazar said representatives from Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad as well as Norfolk Southern Corporation, which she said also operates train tracks in the area, do not plan to attend tonight's meeting, despite being invited.
"It would have been good to have the railroad people there because they need to hear [from] the residents concerned about the amount of train traffic, and that they should try to accommodate the residents," she said. "We should not be inconvenienced. There should be some way they can schedule this stuff at different times. Something should be done, because it's a tremendous inconvenience. We have barges that hold the bridges up, now we have trains that hold the street traffic up. We're paying this penalty for this increase in petcoke coming to our community."
Among other concerns, residents are worried that more petcoke dust, which has already inundated Southeast Side neighborhoods from nearby storage facilities, will blow into their communities from the uncovered train cars. Residents are also upset because the trains are "blowing their horns day and night" in part because there are few if any railroad crossing gates installed along the tracks, Shepherd said.
The uptick in train traffic on the Southeast Side also means "our neighborhoods are landlocked," Rodriguez said.
"If you have a 100-car train coming through the neighborhood, you're blocked off," he stressed. "Let alone any accidents that can happen as a result of the trains coming through the neighborhood, what if there's a fire and how does the fire department go to put out that fire if they can't cross the train track?"
"If they're going to do this to us, then we're going to need more fire stations, we're going to need something in place in Hegewisch, in that area that's covered by these trains, so that the fire department can get in there," Rodriguez added.
A spokesperson for the Chicago Fire Department could not immediately be reached for comment.
Back in April, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to impose tougher regulations on petcoke stored in the city. But many Southeast Side Chicagoans who have called loudly for an outright city ban on petcoke say the measure does not go far enough.
Under the ordinance, co-sponsored by Pope, new petcoke storage facilities are prohibited from opening in the city and existing sites cannot expand. In addition to the petcoke ordinance, the Chicago Department of Public Health has regulations designed to limit emissions that come from petcoke. Petcoke operators have to fully enclose their storage piles within a two-year period and submit monthly progress reports to the city as they work to comply with the public health department’s health and safety measures.
The new city ordinance and regulations do not require rail cars transporting petcoke to be covered, Shepherd said.
"Mayor Emanuel came out [to the Southeast Side] and talked real tough, and after he held his press conference here and he went back downtown, things got watered down, unfortunately," Shepherd said.
East Side, Hegewisch and other Southeast Side residents are also raising questions about other modes of petcoke transportation. Earlier this month, a truck carrying petcoke tipped over in the city's East Side neighborhood, spilling the gritty material onto the street, Bautista said.
Also, Shepherd said he wants to know whether a recent deadly boating accident on the Cal-Sag Channel involved barges carrying petcoke. Last Friday, a recreational boat hit a larger watercraft carrying six barges on the channel. Three individuals that were on the rec boat are confirmed dead.
"We've been trying to find out if they were petcoke barges or not. We've heard rumors that it was petcoke," Shepherd said. "We don't know about the safety of those barges on the river, either."
In addition to tonight's community meeting, Rodriguez said his and other organizations will continue to inform residents about the petcoke problem.
"We're going to hit every neighborhood that's affected by this petcoke to make them aware, to let them know what's going on out here," he said. "We have to do something about it."