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Thursday, 16 April 2015 07:22

Petcoke in Chicago: A Toxic Gift From the Koch Brothers

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2015.16.4 KRAFFSwirls of toxic petcoke dust on the Southeast Side of Chicago in a residential neighborhood. (Photo: David Barboza)GEORGIA KRAFF FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

David versus Goliath – that is how Tom Shepherd and Peggy Salazar of the Southeast [Side of Chicago] Environmental Task Force of Chicago describe their fight. Goliath, in this case, is KCBX Terminals, a division of Koch Industries.

Chicago’s Southeast Side, once an industrial hub of the steel industry, has now become a dumping ground for a filthy waste product of the petroleum industry petcoke: Piles of the stuff, some as high as an eight-story building are being dumped along the banks of the Calumet River. The BP oil refinery across the state line in Whiting, Indiana, produces the coke in the process of refining the tar sands being piped down from Alberta, Canada. BP has sub-contracted KCBX Terminals to handle the material from there.

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Dust from the piles fills the air with every breeze. During particularly windy days, the area is as dark as night. Petcoke, the dregs of tar-sands refining is an oily, powdery substance that coats everything it touches – window sills, cars and laundry drying on clothes lines. It cannot be brushed off the skin; it must be washed off with soap and water.

2015.16.4 KRAFF2Mounds of petcoke threaten the public health on the Southeast Side of Chicago. (Photo: Southeast Side Environmental Task Force)

In Chicago, with a sympathetic ear to the residents’ complaints, the city passed an ordinance requiring KCBX to enclose the petcoke piles. That was in 2013. The company was given two years to comply – to build enclosures to store the stuff, as they had been forced to do in Long Beach, CA, bowing to public outrage. But on the Southeast Side of the Windy City, rather than building the required enclosures, the company periodically hosed down the mounds in an attempt to curtail the dust – a process that was next to useless on hot sunny days when the water quickly evaporated, or in cold weather, which maybe four or five months of the year in Chicago, when the water sprays could not be used.

Since the grace period of the law has run out, KCBX has announced tentative plans to change its mode of operation. As of this writing, no formal plans have been announced, but Tom Shepherd has stated that different reports have been heard. Some say that KCBX may be sending the petcoke into communities in Indiana, perhaps Gary or East Chicago, where the company probably has the clout to get regulations changed to suit the company’s purpose. From the “storage sites,” which - judging from past actions - will be open piles of soot, the coke will be transported via freight trains to ships that will carry the filthy cargo overseas to be used as climate damaging fuel. Peggy Salazar noted that the railroad cars currently transporting the material are open, and sometimes many blocks long – allowing the grime to escape into the neighborhoods through which the trains pass.

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2015.16.4 KRAFF 3Open barges of petcoke on the Calumet River. (Photo: Southeast Side Environmental Task Force)

Petcoke, which is over 90 percent carbon, has a higher energy content than coal and emits between 30 and 80 percent more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of weight. The use of pure petcoke as a fuel is no longer allowed in the United States, however Koch Industries is doing a very lucrative business selling the fossil fuel to places like China, India and Mexico where environmental regulations are even more lax. As of 2013, Oxbow Corporation, another Koch company was a major dealer in petcoke.

Integral to the petcoke public health threat, as well as myriad other environmental disasters-in-the-making is the fact that the Koch brothers, over the past dozen years, have acquired leases for 1.1 million acres of Alberta oil fields, and they are prepared to spend 889 million dollars in the next presidential campaign to support candidates who share their anti-regulatory agenda.

According to Friends of the Earth, “Needless to say, Koch Industries is counting on the Keystone XL pipeline to make the expansion of oil extraction operations there profitable. It would carry 830,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the U.S. daily. To extract each single barrel of oil, ninety-five percent of the water used to extract the oil, which is about 2.4 million barrels per day, is so polluted that the water must be stored in large human-made pools, known as tailing ponds. As the heavy bitumen sinks to the bottom of these ponds, the toxic sludge, full of harmful substances like cyanide and ammonia, works its way into neighboring clean water supplies. …(in Northern Alberta) those living downstream from tailing ponds have seen spikes in rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus and hyperthyroidism.”

The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse six U.S..states and cross major rivers as well as key sources of drinking and agricultural water. Experts warn that the more acidic and corrosive consistency of the type of tar sands oil being piped into the U.S. as well as the risk of external corrosion from higher pipeline temperatures makes spills more likely.”

Keep in mind, the oil which would be produced by refining the tar sands would not stay here in the U.S. to lessen our dependency on foreign oil. It would be refined on the Gulf Coast (resulting in countless more petcoke piles in Texas and Louisiana towns). And then the oil would be shipped overseas for foreign use.

In the following months leading up to the 2016 election, we will be hearing a lot about the benefits of deregulation. Proponents of the “miracle of the free market” will yammer on that to regulate business would be akin to destroying jobs and hindering progress.   This is semantic doubletalk. And so is the insistence that the pipeline will create jobs. The vast majority of jobs created in the US will only be temporary.

So there you have it. If the Keystone Pipeline is run through the US to the Gulf Coast, the already fabulously wealthy Koch Brothers stand to make, by some estimates, $100 billion dollars. If there are leaks or explosions, so what? They have a legal team that will beat back any claim that citizens might have. In Southeast Chicago, the Koch’s legal team denied the findings of the EPA regarding the polluting effects of petcoke – even though the evidence was there for all to see.

What’s in it for us? If the Keystone XL is allowed to go through – the US public will experience the devastation of the air that we breathe and the water we need to survive, with the resultant health and environmental issues.

A vote on the pipeline has been taken, and passed; however, President Obama vetoed it. The game isn’t over, however. More votes will be taken to push for the Keystone XL. There is big money to be made, not only by the Koch brothers, but also by our representatives who are supporting it. This greed driven enterprise can be stopped. But it’s up to us.

If we, as aware citizens, nip this plan in the bud, David may beat back Goliath once again.      

Georgia Kraff is a writer currently living in Roswell, GA.   Her memoir, Fireflies in a Jar - A Milltown Reverie, recalls growing up on Chicago's Southeast Side during the industrial years of the mid 20th century.  You can read more about her and obtain her book on her website.

Additional resource: Early 2014 commentary from BuzzFlash: Chicago Residents Rebel Against Koch Brothers and Rahm Emanuel Over Petroleum Coke Hazard