Illinois, Chicago Residents Sue Over Refinery Soot

The oil-refinery residue known as 'pet coke' may have a funny nickname, but few residents are laughing about open-air storage practices. They've filed a class-action lawsuit against companies involved in storing pet coke, saying the substance is blowing into and contaminating their neighborhoods. The state's attorney general has also filed suit against one company.

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Midwestern oil refineries have been going at full steam, processing crude oil from Canada's tar sand fields. While it's been a boon to business, what's left behind is the stuff of lawsuits. Towering mounds of a black, coal-like substance called petroleum coke - also known as pet coke - are making life miserable for some residents of Chicago. The Environmental Protection Agency is now investigating storage sites for violations.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports that residents say they don't want their neighborhoods to be a dumping ground.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The far southeast side of Chicago used to be home to Chicago steel mills. Now the industrial area, not far from the Indiana border, is a repository for coal and the high-sulfur, high-carbon refinery byproduct called pet coke.

It's just a short drive for Tom Shepherd to get to the sites where mountains of the dusty substance are piled high along the Calumet River.

TOM SHEPHERD: You can begin to see the tops of the piles from here.

CORLEY: Shepherd, with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, says the source of all the pet coke here is a BP plant just a few miles away, across the river in neighboring Indiana. They ship tons of the waste products here by barge, railroads and trucks.

SHEPHERD: So then it gets offloaded, and then it gets redistributed on the big freighters that take it to other countries, where it's used as a fuel.

CORLEY: Kcbx Terminals stores the pet coke at two sites along the Calumet River. The company is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the company run by wealthy industrialists Charles and David Koch. Tomorrow, Kcbx hopes to get approval from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to bring additional equipment, to handle more pet coke from the BP refinery. That troubles people like Shepherd, who say just last August, a storm of dust from the pet coke piles blanket the neighborhood.

SHEPHERD: It was so dark, and so thick, that people were calling 911 and saying, there's a fire; we don't know where the fire is, but the neighborhood's full of smoke. But it wasn't a fire and in fact, it was just the dust that was blowing over here.

CORLEY: Residents complain about open-air storage of pet coke and cite California, which requires it to be enclosed. They worry about respiratory illnesses. They've had to keep windows shut, and kids often can't play outside. They're not alone. In Detroit, city officials ordered another coke company to take their piles of pet coke elsewhere. But Kcbx says everything is under control in Chicago.

LAURIE MCCAUSLAND: We are committed to doing the right thing here at these facilities.

CORLEY: That's Laurie McCausland, deputy general counsel for the Koch company's public sector. She says Kcbx has moved to control the dust by keeping it wet, and recently installed 60-foot-tall water cannons.

MCCAUSLAND: We just got the system up and fully operational Nov. 1st. So we hear the complaints. We understand the concerns from August, but we just got that ready.

CORLEY: That explanation, though, doesn't placate anyone in the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

CORLEY: Shouting "Move the piles!" nearly 200 residents showed up for a community meeting, filling the pews at a Southeast-side church. Pastor Jim Galoon(ph) says the communities here long tolerated the pollution of the steel mills, to make a living. But since the mills closed, the air is cleaner, and they just want the pet coke piles to be gone.

JIM GALOON: So we're looking for something new, something better, something a little more holistic and healthy, and something that can provide a real life for people in this community; a life with a future that we don't have to be afraid of.

CORLEY: Four residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against all the companies involved in storing pet coke, saying the massive piles of the substance have contaminated their neighborhoods, destroyed property and created a nuisance. Earlier this month, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit, too, solely against Kcbx, accusing the company of violating the state's air pollution laws.

LISA MADIGAN: What we are looking to do is to put in place the most stringent safeguards possible so that pet coke is unable to end up on residents' homes and in the air.

CORLEY: Madigan's lawsuit would also fine the company tens of thousands of dollars for continued violations. She says the company should consider building an enclosed facility. But Kcbx says it's much too soon to say the new system its put in place, with water cannons, doesn't work. It's an argument bound to get even more complicated because the BP plant in Indiana is expected to triple its production of pet coke, and much of it will be headed right back here.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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