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Chicago Refinery Petcoke Protests, Round Two

Speaker at Chicago anti-petcoke rally, May 17, 2014 (Cliff Zimmerman)Speaker at Chicago petcoke protest, May 17, 2014 (Cliff Zimmerman)

Saturday marked the second rally of the week in Chicago against petcoke dumping. Last Monday, registered nurses and Southeast Side community activists backed by the Alliance for Community Services, the Chicago chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, and the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force rallied at City Hall to pressure Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city council to “cease all petcoke operations, transport, and storage within the city until it is learned what impact petcoke has on the health of Chicagoans or until the piles are enclosed.” Although Emanuel and the Chicago City Council last month initiated tougher regulations on petcoke piles in the city, activists see the regs as too little and not fast enough.

On Saturday, May 17, some of the nurses joined environmental organizations in another petcoke protest at BP’s $3.8 billion oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, 20 minutes south of downtown Chicago. About 200 people attended. They represented Chicagoland on a National Day of Action Against Dirty Fuels that also took issue with tar sands mining and plans for Keystone XL. People protested across the country. The Illinois contingent specifically targeted the nation’s second-largest tar sands processing plant and the six-story-high waste piles it heaps along the Calumet river banks. The Whiting facility, the largest oil refinery in the Midwest, has been a lightning rod for protests over the past decade or so.

Leave it in CanadaA thick, powdery byproduct of oil refining and pollutants of air and water, petcoke also contains heavy metals, sulfur, carbon, and volatiles. Its worst effects are probably the unsightly piles of waste and open rail cars that blow soot across communities, making residents sick. As Tina Casey reported earlier this week on CleanTechnica, petcoke has an even higher carbon content than coal.

From Robert Jones, pastor at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church:

I’ve seen the petcoke piles. I also saw how just a mere 200 yards away are playgrounds that the children play in when the wind is blowing. I saw the discoloration on the houses, and if the houses are discolored, what colors are the lungs of the young people and the adults in the community?

Petcoke production nationwide is expected to triple to more than 2 million tons in the coming year. The increased flow of heavy oil from Canada is largely responsible for this. North Dakota–based KCBX Terminals Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc., operates two of the Chicago Southeast Side petcoke storage sites, and Indiana-based Beemsterboer Slag Corp. operates the third.

Government figures say petcoke exports have already doubled over the past 15 years. BP produces approximately 700,000 tons of petcoke annually. The company can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t?) dispose of that amount by simply lugging it around the world to other nations. The transportation itself is expensive and spirals up even more greenhouse gases.

Taking issue with the petcoke protests and credit for “the first small increase of manufacturing jobs in Illinois in more than a decade,” the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association had this to say:

Petcoke is not a waste material, it’s a valued commodity that is intentionally produced and significantly utilized by companies engaged in the manufacturing, mining, refining, electric generation and transportation sectors. Illinois needs more jobs and economic development—-there is reason for optimism because we’ve recently seen our first small increase of manufacturing jobs in Illinois in more than a decade, but creating needless barriers to access petcoke could help reverse that trend.

You have to ask if the stuff is so valuable, why’s the fossil fuel industry dumping it anywhere they can?

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covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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