Chicago Communities Fight Back Against Koch Brothers ‘Petcoke’ Pollution
South-side Chicago fights back against Koch industry made pollution
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In Chicago this summer, a group of activists found piles of petroleum coke, or pet coke, which is a byproduct from the refinement of tar sands oil that had piled up along the shores of the Culumet River that runs through the city. The Detroit river had been similarly affected with residents documenting a large black cloud of swirling pet coke back in July. Both sites are home to Koch Industries’ affiliated company KCBX, part of their coke carbon division.
Now joining us to discuss the latest findings in Chicago is one guest, Tom Shepherd. He’s the vice president of Southeast Environmental Task Force. He’s a longtime activist looking to address the issue of environmental degradation in his community.
Thank you so much for joining us, Tom.
TOM SHEPHERD, VICE PRESIDENT, SOUTHEAST ENVIRONMENTAL TASK FORCE: Thank you for the opportunity.
NOOR: So, Tom, can you just tell us exactly what you found on the Calumet River?
SHEPHERD: Yes. Earlier this year, early part of the summer, we began to see an increase in the volume of large black material being stored and shipped into–via the Calumet River and stored along the banks. We were alarmed when we got a view that you can’t see from the street–we happened to have an unusual view of this and just finally learned of the magnitude and the plans for this being occupying a half square mile south of 106th Street on the Calumet River on the South Side of Chicago.
NOOR: And, Tom, can you tell us what specifically the concern is over pet coke, not only on the Calumet but in the neighborhoods in the South Side of Chicago?
SHEPHERD: Sure. Well, we’ve dealt with coal and other things being stored, other bulk materials being stored along the river for many years. We are a steel producer or were a steel-producing area. All the mills that were on the South Side of Chicago are now gone, and as well as the coal-fired power plants that were in the area. So we thought that we were going to be rid of coal along the river and the dust that it brought.
Unfortunately, with the expansion of the BP refinery, which is just a couple of miles east of us in Whiting, Indiana, they began to ship that over here to Illinois for a couple of reasons. Number one is that Indiana has stricter regulations governing the storage of pet coke, so they didn’t keep it on the BP site, they had to get it off the site; and number two, the ready availability of rail, truck, roads, and being on the Calumet River, where bulk material handling operations were already in existence.
NOOR: Now, the company that’s responsible for this, Koch Industries, is one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. Talk about the actions you’ve taken to address this pet coke presence in your community and what your organization is calling for today.
SHEPHERD: Right. Well, the first thing that we realized was that we were not going to be able to do it alone, that we would have to have partners. And we reached out to the larger organizations in the city, national organizations, and began to get assistance. We had meetings with the Illinois Environmental Council and pulled together groups like the Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Respiratory Health Association of Greater Chicago. In fact, the Respiratory Health Association began to furnish us with information that was coming down from Michigan because they were dealing with the same issue on the Detroit River up there.
In that case, the city of Detroit and the state legislature in Michigan enacted some legislation that made it stricter for the storage of pet coke on the Detroit River. There was a big uproar, and in fact from Windsor, Canada, because of dust blowing over to their side of the river as well. And we saw tapes that really alarmed us. We saw video of when the dust would blow, it would just blacken the sky and come over the citizens of Detroit and Windsor, Canada. We didn’t want that to happen here, and we brought together a number of groups to take on this issue and to see what we could do about it.
NOOR: And there’s reports that pet coke exports from Canada to the U.S. have doubled between 2010 at 2012, and it’s being used to replace coal in old coal-burning fuel plants to keep them still in use. Are you also concerned with that as well?
SHEPHERD: Well, we are. Just this past year, in 2012, we saw the Fisk power generating plant and the Crawford generating plant, which were both coal-fired power plants in Chicago, close down after many years of environmental groups working on that. We also have what was a coal-fired power plant since the 1920s just a few miles from us on Lake Michigan on the Indiana border, and that one also closed in March 2012.
However, this pet coke, from what we understand, although it cannot be burned in the United States due to the regulations, can’t be burned in its pure form, but they are in certain states allowing it to be mixed with coal and still to be fueling for power plants.
The other issue is that other countries have less of a standard. For example, we understand that Canada has very lax regulations, so they’re using it up there as fuel, and cement firms and power plants. And also when you get to Mexico, Brazil, and China, it’s used on a greater scale.
NOOR: So, Tom, I also wanted to ask you about the massive dust storm you’ve experienced in Chicago, as well as what your future plans are next to address this issue of pet coke in your community.
SHEPHERD: Right. So we have been watching with great interest the mounting levels of the pet coke being brought into the area. Now it covers approximately a mile to a mile and a half of two sides of the Calumet River from about 100th Street to around 112th Street. That was bad in itself until August 30, when a large–we had a very unusual storm come up in Chicago, which turned into a rainstorm, but prior to the rains there was a very windy gust that came across our neighborhood. And it picked up the dust to such a extraordinary level that people were calling the fire department thinking there was a fire on their city streets somewhere. We had some people that photographed that and a couple of videos of that, and it really brought to light the hazards or the potential dangers of what we were going to be facing if we didn’t do something really quick.
Now that the citizenry has been pretty much acquainted with what’s going on over there, and we have been going door to door with leaflets and telling folks who to call and what to do in the event that something like this happens again, and we have a community meeting set for tomorrow, we’ve gotten a lot of interest in that. Neighbors are pretty worked up and pretty upset about it. So we are rallying the community in hopes that they will be able to move our legislators and our local aldermen to take up some kind of regulation, some kind of legislation in the state of Illinois or whatever it takes to either confine or get rid of this pet coke.
NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us, Tom Shepherd, and we’ll keep following this story.
SHEPHERD: And thank you.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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