Southeast Side Residents Continue Fight Against Petcoke

Petcoke protest
Members of the Chicago South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke hold a press conference on Thursday. The group is calling on the city to ban petcoke. Michael Puente / WBEZ
Petcoke protest
Members of the Chicago South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke hold a press conference on Thursday. The group is calling on the city to ban petcoke. Michael Puente / WBEZ

Southeast Side Residents Continue Fight Against Petcoke

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They were once dubbed as the “Mountains of the Southeast Side.”

But they weren’t really mountains. They were huge piles of black petroleum coke, also known as petcoke, a sort of byproduct in the process of crude oil.

It was transported into the Southeast side of Chicago by truck or railroad nearly every day. 

Thousands of tons of petcoke would find its way to the banks of the Calumet River on property owned by KCBX Terminals and Beemsterboer.

Much of that petcoke originated at the BP Refinery in Whiting, Indiana, a short distance from KCBX.

From the Southeast side, petcoke is shipped to overseas markets to be used as an energy sources like coal.

In late August 2013, a huge wind blew much of the petcoke into the surrounding homes and business causing outrage and sparking a movement to get rid of the substance from the area.

While that has yet to happen, there have been some victories due to public pressure.

In early 2015, BP announced that it would no longer send petcoke to the Southeast side with Hammond-based Beemsterboer closing its petcoke facility. The oil giant is now sending its petcoke to Kentucky.

That leaves KCBX, which continues to receive petcoke from other sources.

That’s why resident and community activist Olga Bautista says more needs to be done.

“What we need is a complete ban on petcoke because we’re not interested in this stuff just being moved to another place,” said Bautista, of the Chicago Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, at a press conference on Thursday. “So this fight is not over.”

Thursday marked the day in which KCBX was to have removed piles of petcoke from the banks of the Calumet River as ordered by Chicago City Ordinance.

“All piles of coal and petroleum coke have been eliminated for several weeks,” said Matt Butterfield, a KCBX spokesman. “The Burley Avenue terminal has transitioned to a direct transfer facility where all product transfers directly to barges and vessels via a covered conveyor system. With these modifications to our business, we look forward to remaining a respectful neighbor in this community for years to come.”

But residents like Bautista and other say KCBX is not welcomed any longer in the Southeast side, a community historically known for heavy industry. 

“We feel like we are prisoners in our home. We feel like we cannot go out without inhaling this toxic dust,” said resident Martin Morales. “We don’t deserve this.”

The Alderman of the 10th Ward, Susan Sadlowski Garza, doesn’t want petcoke in the Southeast side but her policy director John Heroff supports jobs for the Ward.

“We’re never looking for companies to close but we do need KCBX to operate in a safe manner that’s safe for our community,” Heroff said. “The truth is petcoke isn’t safe in any amount operating in the community.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for stricter measures for KCBX to operate but has stopped short of pushing an all out ban.

KCBX once employed 40 people but are now down to 25, according to Bufferfield, who did not offer a reason for the downsizing.

Last March, KCBX and Beemsterboer announced that it was part of a $1.4 million settlement with residents to help address pollution problems.

Residents have until later this month to decide whether they want to be part of the settlement.

Bautista says if everyone on the Southeast side puts in a claim, then each household would get $65, which she says isn’t nearly enough to address health issues.

Bautista says there are still questions regarding the settlement.

That’s why her group is holding an informational meeting on Thursday, June 16 at the East Side United Methodist Church, 11000 S. Ewing Ave., Chicago at 6 p.m.