Petcoke in Our Own Back Yard

LSTC Students visit PetCoke fields of Northwest Indiana.

by Dave Elliott, MDiv Student

4 May 2014

Petcoke: A toxic waste right here in the Windy City. While I cannot take the credit for the previous statement, the truth of statement remains. The statement is actually the title of a YouTube video on the subject of petcoke produced by Vice News. This video is a very informative and good video that gives a solid overview of a literally growing issue on Chicago’s southeast side. However effective the video may be, visiting the petcoke piles themselves provides a completely different perspective.

Petcoke, or petroleum coke, is a carbon-based solid that is a byproduct of the oil refining process. Visually, it is deep black in color, and is a very fine powder like oily graphite. It is easily carried by the wind it can be found in and on the surrounding homes in the neighborhoods that border the piles. Petcoke has always been a byproduct of the petroleum refinery process, but what makes it a more contemporary issue and concern is that an increased amount of it is being produced primarily from the Canadian Tar Sands. The tar sands oil is first mined as a solid, then goes through many steps of refinement, with almost every step producing more petcoke.  In early December of 2013, the BP oil refinery in Whiting Indiana brought on-line one of the largest cokers in the United States, producing 6,000 tons of petcoke each day.

In April 2014, a group of classes from LSTC went to visit these petcoke storage piles and to see the BP refinery in Whiting, IN. The tour was organized through the Southeast Environmental Task Force with Tom Shepherd, a previous president of the taskforce and current leader of group trips. We were also joined by Josh Mogerman who is the Deputy Director of the National Media Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The tour leaders provided much information and apt descriptions of what we were seeing and how the petcoke was affecting the area. When we arrived along the banks of the Calumet River, we went directly to one of three petcoke piles. After driving through densely populated neighborhoods the bus stopped in order for us to view an immense black pile of petcoke standing behind us in the distance. According to our tour guides, the pile stood upwards of six stories tall. The sheer proximity to so many people’s residences and recreational facilities was unnerving. As our tour guides expressed, these piles are growing, and while there are efforts being made by local and regional government, it has not been enough for those living in close proximity to the piles.

Our trip concluded with a discussion of what we had seen and how we understood the petcoke issue as a growing problem (both literally and figuratively), as well as what can be done about the issue. The constant foul odor and the petcoke grime that permeated the area put into sharp contrast the effects of the high and increasing energy demands of our nation. 

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