Petcoke piles at the KCBX Terminal on Chicago's Southeast Side
A truck drives across the top of petcoke piles at the KCBX Terminal on Chicago's Southeast Side, as seen from 109th St. [Photo by Josh Mogerman, Flickr]

The petcoke controversy on Chicago’s Southeast Side is another example of the heightened environmental costs of every stage of tar sands oil production — and yet another case of low-income communities of color bearing the brunt of those hardships, advocates say.

Peg Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force points out that the ashy, dusty waste product, containing carbon, sulfur, and toxic heavy metals, is banned from being stored in the community where it’s produced — Whiting, Ind., where a major expansion of BP’s refinery is expected to triple petcoke production by the end of the year, to over 2 million tons.

Instead it’s shipped from predominantly white, middle-class Whiting to sites on the Calumet River in a mainly Hispanic, low-income part of the South Deering neighborhood on the Southeast Side, she said.

She agrees with the characterization of her community as a “sacrifice zone,” as Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council put it. “We get everything dumped on us here.”

As another example, she cites the original version of an ordinance blocking new petcoke storage sites, introduced last month by Mayor Rahm Emanuel along with Aldermen John Pope and Edward Burke. That would allow existing sites to continue to operate (they’ll have to have enclosed facilities within two years under a city regulation proposed in December) but would block new sites — including one proposed just across the river from the massive redevelopment of U.S. Steel’s South Works plant site, where 13,000 units of luxury housing are planned.

“The [U.S. Steel] project is going to be a ‘green village,’ and that’s great,” Salazar said. “But why isn’t the rest of the community given that kind of consideration?”

A revised ordinance was submitted last week with a huge new loophole: Companies burning petcoke onsite as part of a manufacturing process would also be allowed to store it. That would allow a planned cement plant to store and burn petcoke, and could also help move forward a coal-gasification project which SETF and other groups opposed out of concern over increased carbon emissions. Consideration of the new proposal has been defered by committee until April 24 to give the public time to review it.

“We always get this kind of stuff,” said Salazar, referring to “dirty industry.” “We are constantly bombarded by it.” She calls it a “failure of imagination” on the part of elected officials. “I wish they could look at what we have that’s unique — the natural areas, the wetlands — and ask how can we use that as a basis for growth.”

She’s also disappointed that Emanuel has backed away from his early promises to banish petcoke facilities from the city. “The mayor talked real tough, and we were very happy,” she said. “But it just seems to have been talk and not a lot of action.”

Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery agrees that the siting of the petcoke facilities represents “environmental racism.” Along with SETF, PCR is part of the Environmental Justice Alliance of the Greater Southeast Side.

In the neighboring, predominantly African-American community of Riverdale, Johnson and PCR are working on a green community development plan. “It’s time for the city to show that they can attract business that’s green and economically feasible to locate here,” she said. “There’s an opportunity here; we have to change the perception of this community, and it has to be community-driven.”

From beginning to end, tar sands oil represents what the Sierra Club calls a “public health disaster” impacting communities of color. It starts with strip mines covering hundreds of square miles of boreal forests in western Canada, located on and close to lands of indigenous people, where many still live on fish and wild game and high rates of rare cancers are now being reported. And if proposed pipelines are completed, they will end near Houston’s Port Arthur and East End, predominantly black and Latino communities which are already exposed to extremely high levels of toxic chemicals and air pollution. The Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service estimates that could mean a five-fold increase in lead exposure and a 10-fold increase in sulfur emissions.

The petcoke facilities in Chicago are another link in the chain. Here the dust drifts into people’s homes and enflames lung conditions. Ultimately, most of the product will be shipped overseas to be used as fuel in places with few restrictions on carbon emissions.

If the political leaders who talk about climate change and a Green Chicago were serious, they would not be encouraging the use of this substance and allowing it to be dumped on a vulnerable community. Instead, they’d be putting public resources behind the community vision of greening the Southeast Side.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.