Rallying At Koch-Owned Facility, Nurses Experience Petcoke Pollution Firsthand

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

A mount of petcoke in Chicago in 2013.

Standing on South Burley avenue in southeast Chicago on Monday morning, Rolanda Watson-Clark began to feel droplets of moisture forming on her arms. But it wasn’t raining. The fluid being sprayed on nearby piles of petroleum coke was blowing on to her skin.

“It’s so scary,” Watson-Clark told ThinkProgress. “We were just standing there for a press conference taking pictures with our signs close to the plant, and we’re saying ‘Oh my God! Did you feel that?’ We’re feeling it dropping on us and we’re like — can we go now?”

Watson-Clark, a nurse at the Illinois-based Robbins Health Clinic, was part of a Monday rally demanding Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel put an immediate stop to petcoke — a dusty byproduct of tar sands oil refining — which is stored in large piles along the Calumet river on Chicago’s southeast side. The nurses and activists attending claim that, on windy days, the uncovered piles coat primarily low-income areas of Chicago with thick, black, oily dust that harms children’s respiratory systems and otherwise threatens public health.

“One of the women here is a mother with children, and when the wind blows her house is covered with this soot,” Watson-Clark said. “Her 5-year-old even knows that when it’s windy, she can’t go out and play.”

As part of the rally, members of National Nurses United, the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force, Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, and Progressive Democrats of America, took a bus tour of oil refineries that produce petcoke, and sites that store petcoke piles in the area. This included the controversial KCBX Terminals Company storage site on South Burley avenue, owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The brothers were recently threatened with a lawsuit over air pollution from the piles, some of which Watson-Clark said were six stories high.

The fluid being sprayed on the piles are actually a method of preventing dust, currently required under Illinois law. Under that law, companies that store petcoke must spray the uncovered piles with water or chemical sealers. It was not clear whether KCBX uses water or chemicals to spray its piles; a spokesperson for the company did not immediately return a request for comment.

But Illinois law does not mandate that these large piles of oil refining byproduct be covered or enclosed. This has caused concern for many residents who claim the petcoke creates a toxic soot laced with sulfur, metal, and other volatile compounds that harm human health, the environment, and overall quality of life. Petcoke can be used as cheap fuel, too, which is the reason KCBX buys it from the Detroit Marathon Oil Refinery, eventually shipping and selling it on the international market.

“We can no longer wait to find out just how sick Chicago residents will become as a result of breathing in petcoke,” Jenise Oliver, a Registered Nurse, said in a statement. “All petcoke operations must cease immediately until a study can be conducted to determine what health and other impact petcoke has on Chicagoans.”

Illinois officials have denied that there is a health problem from the piles. In January, the Illinois Pollution Control Board unanimously ruled that there is no imminent threat to public health and safety from petcoke, saying that while improperly controlled emissions “could be a nuisance … this record provides evidence petcoke dust poses low risk to human health.”

Still, nurses from all over the country representing National Nurses United have told a different story, including increases in the number of chronic lung-related diagnoses in areas surrounded by tar sands oil refineries that produce petcoke. The NNU nurses are also concerned that the approval of Keystone XL pipeline — which would bring Canadian tar sands oil down to refineries in nearby Texas cities — will only bring more harm to their communities and the countries.

“We have seen what can happen with tar sands pollution and we feel like that’s an experience that we don’t need,” Kari Columbus, a nurse from Kansas City, said. “If you think health care costs are up and health care is an issue now, it can only get worse from here.”