The battle over petroleum coke, or petcoke, continues to rage in the communities that surround the Calumet River on the Southeast Side. After nearly seven months of public outcry, city and state officials have yet to grant the residents’ favored solution that all petcoke storage facilities be removed from the area.
This isn’t to say the City of Chicago, nor KCBX Terminals Co., the Koch brothers-owned company that stores more than two million tons of petcoke on the Southeast Side, have been complacent. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinance proposal seeks to prevent new petcoke storage facilities from popping up and would stem the expansion of existing ones. This move impacts KCBX, which has stated its willingness to comply with city rules and regulations.
But even under these conditions, residents would not be satisfied.
“Southeast Side residents don’t deserve a lesser quality of life,” Lydia Jordan of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University School of Law wrote in an email. “They deserve the freedom to enjoy the natural resources in their neighborhood and they should be able to expect their regulators and elected officials to protect them as vigorously as they protect residents of all other parts of the city.”
Heavy industry has historically gravitated to Chicago’s southernmost pockets, sometimes creating jobs for locals, other times, as in the case of petcoke, creating nothing more than pollution. When one industry leaves the area after community protest, another often takes its place.
“The Southeast Side and Northwest Indiana [the Calumet Region], have been a dumping ground for toxic industry since the Industrial Revolution.” said Kate Koval, an activist who lives on the Southeast Side. “It seems like in the Calumet Region we can not catch a break.”
Southeast Side residents and activists may be on the verge of winning the petcoke battle, but when will they win the war for environmental justice?
Several blocks south of KCBX Terminals by way of the Calumet River lies the former proposed site of Leucadia National Corp’s $3 billion coal gasification plant, billed as clean energy. Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed a bill in August 2012 that would have allowed the construction of the facility, partially because residents and environmentalists rose up against the addition of a coal plant on the Southeast Side. But two years later, the Leucadia struggle might not be over.
“The community fought hard to stop that project from happening,” Koval said. “Now they are back with plans to create diesel fuel at a new facility.”
Representatives from Leucadia did not return calls for comment.
In December, petcoke opponents scored their first marked victory when Beemsterboer Slag Co., owners of a site that stored 100,000 tons of petcoke, removed their piles under an injunction by Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Alan Beemsterboer, co-owner of the company, said the decision was based on business but not entirely.
“The community outcry was a factor,” Beemsterboer said. “Was the community action overblown? Possibly. But were we sympathetic? Absolutely.”
Beemsterboer plans to sell the property at 2900 E. 106th St., but laments the jobs that were lost after the petcoke removal and said he doesn’t expect much improvement to the area from the site’s prospective owners.
“In the end, you’ll probably just end up with another junkyard there on the South Side,” Beemsterboer said.
At a town hall meeting on March 6 (see video above), Norman Gonsoulin, community outreach liaison for the attorney general’s office, urged Southeast Side residents to keep documenting all petcoke sightings to be used as evidence in the ongoing lawsuits. The most recent suit was filed against KCBX for water pollution and open dumping after Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials found substantial cracks and fissures in a barrier meant to prevent storm water runoff into the Calumet River.
“This is an exhausting battle for the residents of the Southeast Side,” Jordan said. “I hope we can stay engaged for as long as it takes to get the result we deserve.”