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BP Oil Keeps Chicago All Coked Up

As the Koch brothers stand to profit $100 billion dollars from tar sands and the KXL pipeline, residents of a low-income neighborhood in Chicago gain only pollution, illness, and a great deal of uncertainty while the large black piles of petcoke loom over where they live, sleep, and play.

The piles are brought to them courtesy of BP.  (You might remember them from the ongoing environmental disaster on the Gulf Coast.)  BP’s petcoke is a high sulfur, high carbon byproduct of tar sands.  It is the gritty, oily residue left over once the finer oil has been filtered away.

BP refines such material at its refinery, BP Whiting, in Whiting, IN.  Granting exclusive rights, BP pays the Koch-owned company KCBX Terminals to store the toxic remnants until they can be shipped off to countries with lax environmental regulations for use as industrial fuel.  Storage facilities have different regulations than refineries, allowing BP and KCBX to leave the hazardous material uncovered, rather than fully contained.  China, by the way, is one of the largest consumers of petcoke–an interesting note considering the purity of their air, to be sure.

And just as it had been of great concern to the people of Detroit and Ontario last summer as they watched enormous petcoke clouds swirling over the Detroit River into Ontario, citizens of Chicago now voice their concerns.

“Us little people, we’re not millionaires, we’re working stiffs,” East Side resident and garbage truck driver, Frank Caporale, was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times.  “We are being overcome by a super company…”

“I can’t understand why a company is dumping it there and not covering it up,” Jean Tourville offered.  (Jean, coincidentally, also confided to the Sun-Times that she is a stage-four breast cancer patient.)  “This is an economically low area,” Tourville continued, “they don’t care what they do to you.  We have no influence.”  Tourville has been plagued by the oily black soot all over her house, her car, even her white tables inside her house, ever since KCBX began storing more tar sands waste.

Another resident, Lilly Martin, is actually able to see the petcoke piles from the deck in her backyard.  “You can’t have a picnic outside,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “because you are going to get a mouthful of black dust.  It’s so bad we have to power-wash the house every week to wash it off.”

So many complaints have finally prompted the EPA and the Illinois Attorney General’s office to investigate.  Many of them echo the concerns raised in Detroit.

“We’ve been told that the pet coke dust issue is being contained, but here is firsthand evidence to the contrary,” Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI) said in a public statement, referring to a video that had surfaced showing petcoke swirling through the air like a Tim Burton snow globe.   Rep. Peters also claimed that an open drain allowed runoff from the petcoke piles to seep  into the Great Lakes watershed during strong weather.  Some of those piles reached as tall as three stories.

The response citizens of Detroit, Ontario, and Rep. Peters received from Detroit Bulk Storage was that the piles are normally contained with epoxy, but that they are sometimes broken for shipments to be loaded.  One doubts highly whether the citizens of Detroit, Ontario, and now Chicago could give a drill whether the petcoke is flying around in the air from negligence or whether it is from normal “legitimate” business practices.  The fact of the matter remains that petcoke is highly airborne in densely populated areas such as Chicago, sometimes blocks away from residential neighborhoods and working families.

No matter, though–worry not, Chicago!  Rest assured that the Michigan EPA found the petcoke piles to be of no significant risk to public health while they were in Detroit.  Certainly the Illinois EPA will double-check and find them as much now that they are in Chicago.  Relax!  Everything’s going to be fine.  BP company spokesman, Scott Dean’s here.  He’ll make you feel all right.  Listen to him: “BP Whiting is complying with its permit regarding coke handling at the refinery.” There, now don’t you feel better?

Clearly whatever regulatory compliance BP and the Koch brothers have in place is not enough, but the validation and free pass from state agencies ensures residents should not expect anything more than what they are already getting for voicing their concerns–nothing.

Roughly 700,000 tons of petcoke are produced by BP Whiting a year for industrial fuel.  Chicago’s storage site is likely being set up to become the oil tyrant’s key location for worldwide distribution, expecting to triple those numbers within a year’s time.  Koch Industries has made a hot mess with tar sands from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast–tar sands is bad news and petcoke is that filthy industry’s dirty left-overs.  And yep, they profit from that, too.  At least, what doesn’t blow away down the streets and alleys of Chicago.

With more and more people growing ill, with the soot and the oil forming crusts over entire neighborhoods where children play, where folks live and breathe, grow their food and sing their songs, perhaps it is time Chicago looks to Detroit and the Mi’kmaq. Perhaps it is time to draw a line in the petcoke and say, “Across this line, you do not drill!  No tar sands!  No fracking!  No petcoke storage!”  Perhaps the Great Global Frackdown is upon us…

Local residents held a town hall meeting Oct. 24th at the Wolf Park Field House to discuss the matter and organize.  It’s time for the Koch brothers to back the frack off.

Dylan Hock

Dylan Hock is a writer, professor, videographer and social activist. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University in 2003 and has been an Occupier since Oct. of 2011. He is published in a number of little magazines and has an essay on the muzzling of Ezra Pound due out July, 2014 in the anthology "Star Power: The Impact of Branded Celebrity." He is also a contributing writer for Take 10, Addicting Info and Liberal America. Follow him at Google+!

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