Watch the VICE News documentary, "Petcoke: Toxic Dust in the Windy City."
Last October, parents on the southeast side of Chicago stopped letting their children go outside. The kids weren't being punished — they were being protected, from clouds of black dust that had started blowing through residential neighborhoods near the Calumet River. But it was more than just dust; the extremely fine-grained substance felt oily, and it was practically impossible to wash off any surface it touched.
As neighbors eventually learned, the black dust is a coal-like byproduct resulting from the refining of so-called tar sands, a controversial and extremely dirty source of petroleum extracted after razing arboreal forests in Alberta, Canada. (The much-debated Keystone Pipeline essentially exists to transport tar-sand oil.) The byproduct is shipped to the southeast side of Chicago to be stored until it's processed at a BP refinery in nearby Whiting, Indiana.
The byproduct is called petroleum coke, or petcoke for short. And gigantic piles of it loom next to the homes, schools, and churches of an increasing number of very angry Chicagoans.
“The piles of petcoke that have been growing along the Calumet River are getting wafted into our homes and onto our children,” nearby resident Olga Bautista told VICE News when we visited the area. “These companies are not welcome here, and they shouldn’t be permitted to access and utilize the lake and river in ways that exclude the community.”
Piles of petcoke next to Chicago's Calumet River near Lake Michigan
In slightly more technical terms, petcoke is "a byproduct of coking, a process that takes very heavy oil and produces gasoil (a precursor to diesel or vacuum gasoil) and naphtha," according to petroleum-industry publication Platts. "The coke is used as a fuel for power plants, in a kiln in the production of concrete or, for some specialty grades, in the production of aluminum or other metals."
Petcoke also isn't very good for you. It can wreak havoc on the human respiratory system, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last fall on behalf of people living near the piles. The tiny, oily particles can irritate airways, induce coughing, and make it difficult for people to breathe. In more extreme cases, they can also be responsible for decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, and even death for people with heart and lung disease.
One exhibit from that lawsuit — a Safety Data Sheet commissioned by petroleum refiner Tesoro — warns against not just breathing in petcoke vapors and dust, but any physical contact with it at all. “Inhalation of excessive dust concentrations may be irritating to the upper respiratory system,” the Safety Data Sheet explains. “Repeated chronic inhalation exposure may cause impaired lung function.”
Petcoke is typically exported and burned in foreign coal-fired power plants. (Not surprisingly, China is the top global petcoke importer, and accounts for 20 percent of US exports.) In April 2013, the US Energy Information Agency announced that US petcoke exports were at record highs; the US sent 184 million barrels of petcoke abroad in 2012, which was 20 million more barrels that in 2010.
America exports most of its petcoke because it burns too dirty to be used in most states. (It's been called “dirtier than the dirtiest fossil fuel” by US Representative Gary Peters.) According to the Oil Change International report, one ton of petcoke burns 53.6 percent more carbon dioxide than one ton of coal. Estimates put the total amount of petcoke available from the Canada tar sands at 5 billion tons.
CHANGING THE CLIMATE
Angry residents of Chicago's southeast side have forced local, state, and federal officials to act … or, at least, to react. Illinois EPA spokesman Andrew Mason told VICE News that the petcoke issue is "one of the agency’s highest priorities" for 2014. "We want a comprehensive solution as soon as possible," he said.
The EPA has erected air monitors to track the effect petcoke is having on local air quality. The City of Chicago and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office have filed lawsuits against the company that stores the petcoke. And US Senator Dick Durbin and US Representative Robin Kelly wrote letters to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requesting more studies be done on petcoke’s potential health impacts.
“Early indicators suggest that petcoke can cause respiratory problems,” Kelly told VICE News. “It’s time for the federal government to formulate national policy on petcoke to ensure equal levels of protection for our environment and our citizens from the potential health hazards presented by it.”
A pile of Petcoke next to the Calumet River
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who eliminated the city’s Department of Health in 2011, has also responded. Sort of. On December 19, days after Durbin and Kelly visited the petcoke piles, Emanuel announced that regulations of petcoke storage in the city are forthcoming. However, Emanuel’s regulations explicitly ruled out the possibility of a ban on petcoke in the city, and allowed two years for the measures to go into effect. This didn't sit well with people on the southeast side.
“The community wants the petcoke removed completely from the area — our families are tired of living in a toxic dumping ground," Bautista said. "The city and state proposed regulations that are rife with holes."
Those holes were documented by investigative reporter Kari Lydersen in a January story in Midwest Energy News. Lydersen reported that the regulations would cover only facilities receiving more than 10,000 tons of petcoke every five days, or storing more than 100,000 cubic yards of petcoke at a time. Existing smaller operations would be exempt from the regulations, and could continue storing petcoke without any kind of enclosure.
Translation: Each giant pile could be turned into several smaller piles, and with some clever bookkeeping, the owners could still be in compliance with the regulations. VICE News contacted the mayor's office numerous times requesting comment on their proposed policies, but we were denied comment.
A retention pond used to hold water tainted with petcoke. A crack in the retaining wall allows the water to leak into the nearby river.
And so it appears petcoke is in Chicago to stay.
BP just spent $4.2 billion to retool its refinery in Whiting, which will quadruple its oil-sands capacity. The facility is also home to the world's second-largest petcoke processor — known as a coker — capable of handling more than 100,000 barrels a day.
And Chicago isn't going to be an isolated case. Detroit has battled its own petcoke piles, and the Oil Change International report points out that of the 134 petroleum refineries in the United States, 59 have the capability to process petcoke. Plus, there's a rapidly growing market for the stuff. In the first half of 2013, China imported 24 million barrels of petcoke from America, which was 55 percent more than they'd imported in the same period of 2012. isn't that a lot of energy to export to our biggest global energy rival?
“There’s nothing wrong with exporting product,” said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Energy Council for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. "And even if we banned that and couldn’t export it, then what do we do with it? Again, petcoke is a byproduct of the process. By not selling it, you’re not stopping that petcoke from being produced. It’s still going to be there.”
Still, many Americans, especially those on the political right, must be extremely unhappy that the US is selling so much energy to China at the expense of the health and happiness of hard-working Americans.
Or not. Chicago’s biggest uncovered petcoke terminal is owned by one of the many subsidiaries of Koch Industries, KCBX Terminal Company. The petcoke itself is owned by another, Koch Carbon LLC.
Yes, Koch Industries. As in, the company owned by the Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch are two of the richest men on the planet, and they spent more than $400 million on efforts to unseat Democratic Congressmen and defeat Barack Obama during the 2012 US elections. They are generally credited as the men responsible for the Tea Party movement. They have also given tens of millions of dollars to groups that deny climate change.
Their brother William Koch — also a major donor to the Republican Party — is the founder, president, and CEO of Oxbow Carbon, the “worldwide leader in fuel grade petcoke sourcing and sales." Oxbow handles more than 11 million tons of petcoke per year. So the Koch brothers — along with the other Koch brother — would appear to be ready to supply China with dirty energy for many years to come.
After it blows around Chicago's southeast side a little.
“Companies like these don’t benefit the community by being here,” Southeast Environmental Task Force Executive Director Peggy Salazar told VICE News. “They do nothing for us. Nothing.”