They’re poisoning South Chicago

January 30, 2014

If Illinois officials won't stop energy corporations from exposing our community to toxic petcoke dust, we need to take our fight to the streets, argues Olga Bautista.

GROWING UP was sometimes lonely for me and for my younger siblings Roberto and Caty. We didn't have any uncles, aunts or cousins in Chicago. Most of our extended family settled in California, Colorado and Utah. Two aunts moved to Joliet, Ill., and the others stayed working on their families' ranches in Mexico. Because of this, our neighbors and the community of South Chicago became our family.

My parents are from Nayarit and Jalisco, Mexico. They settled in South Chicago in the mid-'70s, only a few years before the steel mills here started to close down. Since then, they have worked very hard at various factory jobs in order to support us. They are property owners, naturalized citizens and also happy grandparents to my two daughters, six-year-old Pilar and eight-month-old Liberty.

The pollution in our neighborhood was something that we didn't think much about when we were growing up. We got accustomed to the smell from the nearby landfill that often wafted into the neighborhood on hot summer days. When we went swimming at Calumet Park Beach, there would always be a black residue on the shore as the tide was receding, and many times we saw little black pieces of coal that likely fell from the barges and freighters into Lake Michigan. The bridges and train crossings were a nuisance when we were in a hurry to get somewhere, but I didn't think too much about what was being transported on those ships and trains, where it was coming from, or where it was going.

Petcoke piles loom over the banks of the Calumet River in Southeast Chicago
Petcoke piles loom over the banks of the Calumet River in Southeast Chicago (Josh Mogerman)

My brother has been in the Army for nine years. He has travelled to many countries in Europe, and to Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has been stationed in Germany, Oklahoma and, in recent years, Seattle. He came for a visit a couple months ago and spent Thanksgiving with us before his scheduled deployment to the United Arab Emirates. He has decided that this will be his last deployment before he retires from the Army. Last summer, he bought a house here in the old neighborhood, and he intends to start his civilian life again as a proud South Chicagoan.

During his visit, we talked a lot about the latest environmental struggle that we currently find ourselves in in South Chicago. Large piles of petroleum coke have been growing along the Calumet River over the last year at the Beemsterboer Slag Corp. and KCBX Terminals.

Petroleum coke (or petcoke)--sometimes called "the dirtiest of dirty fuels"--is a waste byproduct of tar-sands oil and often used as an inexpensive substitute for coal. When petcoke dust sits uncovered, even light or moderate winds can lift the fine powder aloft, which then wafts into our homes, our backyard pools, and the lungs of our children and our pets.

We talked about the community's outrage that an emergency injunction hadn't been issued to stop KCBX until there was enough information regarding the health hazards posed by the piles of petcoke. Instead, they just continue to operate here, making big bucks storing and selling this byproduct of crude oil. And they intend to start bringing much more of this stuff when BP's new coker in Whiting, Ind., starts operating at full capacity.

It's another example to us that companies like Koch Industries and BP will always be better protected than American families.

MY BROTHER and I struggled to find meaning in all of this. He is just one of many veterans serving in the armed forces and hoping to return to South Chicago and start a life, perhaps a family, and achieve the American Dream. Unfortunately, it is more like an environmental nightmare that families are living here.

What are the soldiers overseas fighting for? Is it our freedom to live healthy lives, free of petcoke, or is it the freedom of companies like BP, Holcim, KCBX and myriad other polluters along the Calumet to keep operating freely?

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, more recently, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn have all come to my neighborhood to see firsthand how we live amid these mountains of petcoke. Some of these leaders have spoken to residents, visited their homes and even handled the sticky, oily petcoke in their bare hands.

Despite the media attention generated by this, however, progress has been limited. The city and state have proposed restrictions on petcoke, but their regulations are rife with loopholes. And we don't even know the harm it has already caused us because no one is doing a health analysis of community members.

Instead, we have been asked by the city, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the attorney general to report uncovered trucks, the size of petcoke piles, petcoke in the air on windy days, and so forth. In essence, we're being asked to do their job!

But enough is enough. Their bureaucratic process hasn't yielded the regulations to sufficiently protect our families, so we are taking this battle to the streets.

As a mother on the front lines in this battle, I still remain hopeful that repairing the harm to the Calumet River region will be something we can do for future generations of South Chicagoans. These companies are not welcome here, and as my neighbor Kate has said, they shouldn't be permitted to access and utilize the lake and river in ways that exclude community voices, while making us sick.

Now that all the political posturing is over, we have no choice but to collectively assert our own power as families tired of living in a toxic dumping ground.

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