Southeast Side Chicago residents and their supporters from around the city gathered in a park next to the Chicago Skyway at 106th and State Line Road last Saturday. They were there to protest the storage of mountains of petroleum coke or “petcoke”, a substance created by petroleum processing which is being dumped near the already badly polluted Calumet River, in their immigrant and working class neighborhood.
The petcoke is a bi-product of tar sands oil processing at a BP refinery in Whiting across the state line in Indiana. It sits in heaps near the homes of Southeast Siders who must endure the dust from the petro-byproduct that blows into the Windy City’s residential areas. Rich with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), petcoke is known to aggravate respiratory ailments like asthma. It also contains heavy metals selenium, vanadium, and nickel.
Led by the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force and joined by organizations including National Nurses United, System Change Not Climate Change and the International Socialist Organization, the group of about 150 marched through the Southeast Side after a short rally. Their demand: an outright ban on storing petcoke near residential communities.
They stopped at the office of 10th ward City Council member John Pope who, after first indicating his opposition to the petcoke, is now supporting a bill in the City Council that would allow it to be burned city limits. The protestors then continued on to the gates of a facility owned by the Koch Brothers, where petcoke from Whiting is stored in large, uncovered piles.
Last month, on March 25, BP disclosed that 1,638 gallons of tar sands crude had spilled from a petcoke distillation unit in Whiting into Lake Michigan, putting the drinking water of millions in jeoperdy. While the longterm impacts of the spill remain unclear,,BP is expanding its tar sands processing capacity from 700,000 tons of petcoke per year to 2 million tons annually.
As the protest on Saturday indicates, however, the company will be facing growing opposition to their business plans. Protestors vowed to continue the fight against the environmental injustice they are facing and it remains their hope that community power can evict their unwanted, poisonous neighbor.