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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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