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Shyla Nott/MEDILL

Growing piles of petcoke along the Calumet River have Southeast Side residents voicing their concerns at a recent public hearing.

Residents: Southeast Side not petcoke dumping ground

by Shyla Nott
Jan 15, 2014


Shyla Nott/MEDILL

Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, holds up a blackened filter from a home near the petcoke piles.

Southeast Side residents had one message for city officials and petroleum coke storage facilities at a recent public hearing — move the uncovered piles.

Residents affected by the handling and storing of bulk materials at sites like KCBX Terminals Co. said newly proposed regulations for dealing with petcoke, a waste byproduct from the Whiting, Ind., BP oil refinery, has too many loopholes.

“We don’t want regulations that are very watered down and accommodating to the businesses,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a non-profit environmental education group.

Salazar pulled out a blackened filter before a crowd of more than 100 at St. Simeon Serbian Orthodox Church, 3737 E. 114th St., to show “how ineffective” the KCBX $10 million dust suppression system is at controlling windborne materials in the community.

Hours before Monday’s hearing, Gov. Pat Quinn also announced emergency rules that could set statewide standards for storing petcoke by the end of January. If approved by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, the state rules would supercede those being vetted by the city.

Although KCBX has handled the high-carbon, high-sulfur petcoke for more than 20 years, shipments are expected to increase as production surges from 700,000 tons a year to 2.2 million tons. 

Representatives from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and KCBX said the city’s proposed regulations don’t allow ample time to plan or adjust, but Southeast Side critics said they are tired of being the city’s “dumping ground” and want the piles gone — for good.

Citywide bans are legally difficult, so the next best alternative is aggressive enforcement, said Ald. John Pope (10th).

“No one wants to say that businesses are not welcome here,” Pope said. “But if you choose to operate, you have to operate in a respectful manner of your surroundings."

Critics like 71-year-old Walter Ploszaj, who can see “mountains of black stuff” from his porch, said he is experiencing itchy and watery eyes, and now uses eye drops. 

“The rich get richer and the poor get dust,” said Ploszaj, criticizing the Koch Industries Inc.-owned KCBX near his home.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said petcoke has a low potential for health hazard. Brian Urbaszewski, the environmental health programs director at the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association, says otherwise. 

Urbaszewski said particulate matter found in petcoke can bypass the body’s natural filters and reach the deepest portions of the lungs, causing upper respiratory problems and even disrupt the circulatory system and heart.


The 30-day public comment period ends Jan. 24. Send written comments to Or mail the Chicago Dept. of Public Health, Attn: Environmental Permitting and Inspections, 33 S. State St., Room 200, Chicago, IL 60604.