The dark, gritty piles rising five stories high line the bank of the Calumet River. Once, these piles were only coal. But with the demise of the steel mills and the recent shuttering of two coal-fired power plants, the demand for coal has dropped.
Now the piles contain petroleum coke, or petcoke, the byproduct of refining heavy tar sands oil.
“We're concerned about mostly the dust issues. Just coming out here today, I felt some in my mouth and I definitely have it in my eyes,” said Tom Shepherd of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “It’s a moderately windy day, not a very windy day, so on a day like today we are getting the effects of it on our faces and in the water. But on a day where the wind really picks up, it carries it into the neighborhoods.”
The majority of the petcoke stored along the river comes in by barge from the BP refinery in nearby Whiting, Indiana. BP is in the midst of a $3.8 billion upgrade to enable the company to refine heavier oils, primarily from the tar sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada. Tar sands crude has a higher carbon content, and so does the petcoke that remains after the refining process.
“We've looked into the health impacts from petcoke, and they're significant ones in terms of the dust that blows up into the air and some of the other heavy metals that are contained in the dust,” said Meleah Geertsma of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There are also some significant impacts potentially if it gets into the water because those same heavy metals can affect both aquatic life and people who come in contact with the water.”
Efrin Firness lives two blocks from the Calumet River and the piles that contain petcoke.
“It comes through the vents. We got to clean the windows and the screens every couple of days,” he said.
Firness's east side neighbors took photos after a wind storm in August. One photo shows a huge dust cloud from the piles that blackened the afternoon sky.
Longtime southeast side resident and activist Peggy Salazar says the pollution is constant.
“I have had coal dust, and possibly petcoke dust because it’s very hard to distinguish between the two, on my beverages when I’m outdoors in the summertime, on my lawn furniture, on my siding,” said Salazar. “It’s on our cars, it’s everywhere.”
The largest storage terminal along the river is owned by KCBX, a subsidiary of Koch industries. Owned by brothers Charles and David Koch, it is the second largest privately owned company in the U.S. KCBX has the contract with BP to move and store its petcoke. When the BP refinery renovation is completed and the new coker is in operation, the output of petcoke can increase from the current 700,000 tons annually to 2.2 million tons.
With so much petcoke coming in, KCBX bought a new facility last December. The half-mile square area has the capacity to hold hundreds of thousands of tons of petcoke.
KCBX has installed sprinklers to tamp down the dust, but Salazar says that's not enough.
“We’re hoping that they would be required to enclose the product,” said Salazar. “That's really the only solution because from past experience dust suppression measures only work so much. It would be better to have it enclosed and prevent the dust from spreading.”
KCBX did not agree to an interview but did issue this statement:
“We are in the final stages of constructing more than $10 million in upgrades, including improvements to our dust suppression capabilities. KCBX puts a priority on regulatory compliance and managing operations in a manner that protects the health and safety of employees, the community, and the environment.” - KCBX spokesman Paul Baltzer.
The Beemsterboer terminal is just across the river from KCBX. Beemsterboer is a fourth generation company that has been holding coal, slag and other materials along the Calumet River since 1921.
“We've always tried to react to the neighborhood's concerns. We've been to numerous meetings, and when they've brought up concerns we've always try to address them and do what we could to help them,” said Peter Beemsterboer.
Petcoke, says Geerstma, is just one of the problems associated with refining heavy tar sands oil.
“These problems show that the tar sands problems are not just from a refinery over there in Indiana or up in Canada somewhere far away from Chicago, but that they’re real impacts right in the cities in which we live, and there are waste products from refining tar sands that are making their way into Chicago neighborhoods,” said Geertsma.
It is his Chicago neighborhood that Shepherd is concerned about.
“Folks in this area worked in the mills like my dad did for 39 years,” he said. “When we had coal, we knew that meant jobs in the mills. Today, all mills are gone and this product is being shipped elsewhere, and we don't feel like we should be the dumping ground for this to be shipped out to China, to Canada, to Mexico.”
The Illinois EPA is reviewing KCBX permits to determine compliance with dust control regulations. And Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office has opened an investigation into the impact of the growing piles along the Calumet.
The Southeast Environmental Task Force will hold a meeting to hear neighborhood concerns about pet coke piles next week.