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In Chicago, piles of petroleum coke suggest the future of Canadian tar sands oil

The mouth of the Calumet River in South Chicago.

This summer, residents of Chicago’s far southeast side noticed mountains of black dust growing in one corner of the neighborhood. It’s petroleum coke -- pet coke for short. That's what gasoline refineries produce as a byproduct of refining gasoline. It’s full of carbon, sulphur and heavy metals. 

On August 30, a big wind brought the coke piles to the whole neighborhood’s attention. At a baseball field a block or two away, a little league game ended in a hurry.

"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," says Tom Shepherd, a volunteer with the Southeast Environmental Task Force. "They had to just get the heck out of here."

He calls the 30th “a day that will live in infamy.” He says, "People were calling 911 and saying, ‘There’s a fire! We don’t know where the fire is, but the neighborhood’s full of smoke.’"

But it wasn’t smoke. It was dust from the piles that had been growing throughout the summer.

They’re a sneak preview of what’s ahead. At least some of the dust came from a local BP refinery. It’s across the state line in Indiana, but it can be seen from the neighborhood. And that refinery is about to triple the amount of pet-coke it turns out. BP is finishing a huge upgrade this fall, to process oil from Canada’s tar sands. 

That oil is “heavier” with elements that get refined out and turned into pet-coke. Post-upgrade, the Indiana refinery will turn out 6,000 tons a day. Eventually, it gets sold as fuel, much of it to countries like Mexico and China. But meanwhile, it piles up.

"It’s the most visual part of the success of North American energy independence," says Phil Verleger, an economist who studies energy markets.

That success has both an upside and a downside:  Nearby sources of oil should mean lower fuel prices in the Midwest, which has high gas prices.  And more piles of pet coke. 

"So the question is," Verleger says, "How do we deal with this pile of black stuff that’s bringing us this supply of fuel?"

So far, nobody’s got an answer.

In early November, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a complaint in state court. Her office said the dust from the piles violated environmental regulations. Madigan says she doesn’t know exactly what it would take to make pet-coke a good neighbor. "Well, you know, if it’s not safe where it is, it may have to go somewhere else," she says.

That would be a popular answer on the Southeast Side. Last week, neighbors packed a local church when Illinois EPA officials came to gather input. Again and again, the meeting got stopped by a chant: "Move the piles!  Move the piles!"

So far, neighbors have blamed BP and Koch Industries, which owns the yard with Chicago's pet-coke piles. BP and Koch say there’s been a misunderstanding so far. BP says that it wasn’t actually sending more pet coke than usual to the Chicago yard this summer.

Koch has its own explanation for the taller piles: It was moving petroleum coke around in the yards to make room for new safety equipment. It installed big water cannons, which are supposed to keep the piles wet so the dust doesn’t blow around. Making room meant more activity, and some piles got taller for a while.

[Note: The audio version of this story included a snippet from the Nov. 14 meeting hosted by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The audio was taken from a video of the entire meeting posted by community resident Kevin Murphy.]

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.
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Yes, the pet coke eventually gets sold as fuel, to Mexico and China - but not until the price is right. And until BP and Koch get their price, the piles grow higher and blow more into your neighborhoods. Yeah, there is a misunderstanding, alright: BP and Koch misunderstand just how much of this everyone is going to take!

The community is outraged that an emergency injunction hasn't been issued by any of the so called watchdogs (attorney general, EPA, IEPA, department of public health, the mayor, the governor) and these companies just keep operating here, making big bucks selling the byproduct of possibly the dirtiest possible fuel. A similar fight was lost by our brothers and sisters in Alberta CA where the tar sands are originating. Koch bros, BP and any elected official that's pockets are lined with this dirty money have everything to gain. We on the other hand keep having to fight just to fucking exist. Our residents are being assaulted by this pollution daily, and of course, this shit wouldn't fly in the neighborhoods where the folks that I mention above Madigan, Quinn, Rahm, the Koch brothers etc. live. This is not the american dream it's the working class nightmare. We are not special or exceptional as Obama likes to refer to Americans. It's the working class and the working poor who always bear the brunt of a booming and failing economy. Agri-business, Fracking, now refining tar sands may boost our GDP but is anyone simultaneously tracking our GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness. No, right? Fuck us, right? Like big industry has ever done what's best for us. Everything we take for granted like child labor laws and the 8hour work day we have because workers fought for it. See you all on the front-lines because we are going to fight for this too...its not like we really have a choice.

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