CHICAGO - Residents on the southeast side of this city are complaining about smoke, but it's actually dust from an oil refinery, and it's drifting into many nearby neighborhoods. That's because KCBX Terminals and Beemsterboer Slag Company are operating facilities along the Calumet River, just south of the Chicago Skyway bridge. Those facilities are storing big piles of coal and petroleum coke (petcoke) - both forms of waste dumped from a nearby BP oil refinery.
The pile by Chicago is full of carbon, sulfur, and toxic heavy metals. It first drew major attention on Aug. 30 when a sweeping wind brought some of the dust into the middle of a baseball field, effectively ending a little league game that was taking place at the time. "Kids that were playing ball were sent scurrying away because the stuff was getting into their eyes, and their face, and their mouths and everything," said Tom Shepherd, a volunteer with the Southeast Environmental Task Force. "They had to just get the heck out of there."
Initially, he added, no one knew where it was coming from: "People were calling 9-1-1 and saying, 'There's a fire. We don't know where the fire is, but the neighborhood's full of smoke.'"
Whiting Refinery, the place from which the waste first came is actually located in Indiana, but it can be seen from the Chicago neighborhoods being affected. That refinery is now tripling the amount of petcoke it processes (BP calls it an "upgrade") and will soon be handling tarsands oil from Canada as well. The fact that BP owns the facility isn't terribly surprising, given their atrocious environmental (many would say "criminal") record.
More interesting is the fact that KCBX Terminals, which operates some of the yards where the piles are dumped, is a division of Koch Industries, the greed-based company owned by the billionaire Koch brothers. The Kochs were also implicated in an environmental disaster earlier this year, when a pipeline owned by one of their subsidiaries leaked thousands of gallons of crude on Oct. 30.
On Nov. 18, Windy City mayor, Rahm Emanuel, promised a crackdown on the pollution. His office announced in an email that Emanuel is ordering the Department of Public Health to adopt "strict regulations on the maintenance and storage" of piles containing petcoke. Though it did not get into specifics, the email guaranteed that at least three storage terminals would be provided to start containing the black dust.
Susanna Gomez, a 37 year-old mother and grandmother who lives near the noxious stockpiles, remarked, "We could barely open the windows this summer because the black dust was so bad." She doesn't have the money to move, and her son is asthmatic.
Regulators with the EPA have now ordered that pollution monitors be posted around those enormous mounds, but citizens are doubtful such a measure will change anything. The agency made its announcement at a community meeting in the East Side United Methodist Church on Nov. 14, amidst cries of "Move the piles! Move the piles!" If not that, others suggested, then the next best thing would be to do what the law already requires in states like California, which is to cover the piles. The EPA also declared it would investigate whether the piles are in violation of the Clean Air Act, something the pollution monitors will supposedly help determine.
But residents like Sue Garza don't need monitors to tell them something's wrong. Said Garza, "We are breathing this stuff every day. No one asked us if we wanted to have these piles dumped here in the first place. We don't want this anymore."
Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP