Chicago’s Southeast Side

By Ken Schmidt
(December 2013)

Petroleum coke, also known as petcoke, is a carbon-rich waste product generated when bitumen from tar sands is refined into oil. Unfortunately petcoke has been commoditized and is being used as fuel for industry, which only compounds the environmental degradations of tar sands oil extraction and refining, from “well-to-tank greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” being significantly higher when compared to conventional crude to the naphthenic acids and other pollutants which constitute oil sands process water (OSPW). The resulting slurry leftover from processing and refining tar sand oil from tar sands must be properly stored so that it does not end up in local waterways and/or aquifers.

Regardless of the opinions of those who stand to benefit financially from the continued extraction/processing/use of tar sands oil, namely the fossil fuel industry as well as representatives from numerous Canadian governmental departments, the truth is this oil when burned emits more carbon than conventional oil. Estimates range from the European Union stating that oil derived from tar sands has a “22% higher carbon emission rating” than conventional oil, whereas Marvin Odum, Shell Oil Company president states it’s “6-7 percent more carbon intensive”.

A massive pile of petcoke on Chicago’s southeast side. (Source: Emily Brosious / Gapers Block)

A massive pile of petcoke on Chicago’s southeast side. (Source: Emily Brosious / Gapers Block)

Recently piles of petcoke have begun appearing along the banks of the Calumet River in southeast Chicago on sites which in years past had stored coal, so industry has swapped one polluting product for another. Unfortunately, these piles, some of which are five stories high, are not covered, so when it rains or the wind blows or these piles are disturbed in any way (i.e. by adding more material to the pile), this extremely small material (consisting of typically the size of a grain of sand) is washed away into local waterways or sent airborne to settle on residents’ homes, schools, places of work, etc.

There are days when the winds are so high that residents are forced to remain indoors with their doors and windows shut so as to keep the petcoke from coating the interior of their homes. Consequently, this community and its residents, who for the past century plus have experienced more than their fair share of environmental degradations, are once again being subjected to intolerable environmental conditions. . . .

Petcoke is much dirtier than coal, so it cannot be used for fuel in the US — but as petcoke is so much cheaper than coal, corporations have commoditized it for use as an industrial fuel and found willing buyers in China and developing nations which have much more lenient air and water quality regulations (if they exist at all). . . . So yet again, through no fault of their own, residents of the Lake Calumet area are being exposed to hazardous materials. The question must be asked: why? Would corporations even consider storing petcoke in areas where residents were higher up on the socioeconomic ladder? Or where people of color did not comprise the majority of residents?

Read the entire text of Ken Schmidt’s article, “The Ties that Bind: Demand for Energy, Petcoke, the Koch Brothers, and the Southeast Side of Chicago,” here in pdf or Word format.