12/18/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Petcoke on Our Parkways? The Crudification of Chicago

There has been movement on the piles of oil refining waste along the Calumet River, which have been such a powdery black eye for Chicago of late. KCBX, the company holding massive mounds of petcoke at the edge of homes, schools and parks on the Southeast Side has been looking for a little help from the city -- seeking looser enforcement of the laws put in place after neighbors in the area revolted over clouds of dust descending on their communities.

So far, KCBX hasn't had much luck.

Quite the opposite, actually.

Last week, the city rejected requests for variances that would have allowed petcoke to be piled much higher than allowed (the higher the piles, the more potential for petcoke to be windblown). Additionally, an ordinance introduced in City Council makes clear that the city doesn't put a lot of stock in the petcoke pilers' happy talk about the impact of their facilities.

A letter sent to KCBX this week by the Commissioner of Public Health explains why. It turns out that the city has a study showing the material on sidewalks nearby:

A [Chicago Department of Public Health] analysis using electron microscopy found petcoke dust on neighborhood sidewalks, in direct contradiction to a flawed study from KCBX that claimed to have found no petcoke in soil samples. CDPH takes the complaints and concerns of the residents who live merely hundreds of feet from your facilities seriously and expects your company to do the same.

And that comes at a bad time for the petcoke pilers, as this week the company rolled out anodyne drawings of giant sheds-in-grass within which they might enclose their black mounds. The imagined sheds are, of course, giant because they intend to put lots and lots and lots of crud under those roofs. Hundreds of tons of it coming from the reviled BP refinery nearby in Whiting, IN, as well as facilities in the suburbs and far flung states as far as Wyoming.

On one hand, this announcement is an unacknowledged "win" for the Southeast Side community. KCBX likely would not have made this investment without the community's full-throated pushback forced further actions. Up until now, the company has crowed about spending millions on a series of sprinklers on sticks that are supposed to wet the piles to prevent the material from blowing. (Of course, the city's study seriously undercuts those claims.)

On the other hand, the proposal is far from what the community needs, legitimately deserves, or has properly advocated for: the withdrawal of the piles from the neighborhood, and investments that build and fully protect the community.

The KCBX press release brags that this enormous metal shed would be the biggest investment in years on the Southeast Side. But really, is this the investment you would want in your neighborhood? Are Chicagoans supposed to applaud making piles of petroleum refining residue a permanent feature of their neighborhood --or should they be bothered that these folks think our town is clamoring to be a dumping ground for Big Oil's gunk? Being a transfer facility for petroleum refining byproducts would further marginalize the Southeast Side -- not move it into a vital 21st Century economy?

Frankly, the whole thing stinks. As I told the Trib's excellent reporter Michael Hawthorne, "The company might be putting its dirty industry inside a shed, but this is still a crudification of the neighborhood."

Southeast Environmental Task Force's Peggy Salazar had it right when she told ABC-7's Paul Meincke, "Some businesses do not belong in residential areas. Dirty businesses like the handling of coal and petcoke do not belong in communities. They just don't."

KCBX disagrees.

And they want the city of Chicago to let them take their sweet time to end the open, outdoor storage of petcoke that Salazar and neighbors have rightly been battling against. That big shed? The company needs extra time to get it into place. More than a year beyond what the law says they are allowed. Until 2017, Southeast Siders will just have to deal with the mess.

But the city doesn't look anywhere near ready to go along with that.

The letter sent Wednesday showed a lack of patience for KCBX's cavalier response to the city's petcoke regs, noting that the company has already burned through a quarter of the two-year grace period they had to get the piles covered or close up shop. Tick tock, tick tock.

As we have said over and over, these are not the investments that make a great city. These are the investments that make a crud city. They marginalize the community and the city. Chicago cannot be a city that puts petcoke over people. That is not what Chicago is, and Mayor Emanuel's response to date to the petcoke has been to stand with the community for a safe, vibrant future. We hope the city will continue to work to push this dirty industry out of town, and rebuild the Southeast Side.

The news that the city's own study shows petcoke continues to blight Chicago beyond the confines of KCBX's fence line, despite the company's assertions, should signal a clear course of action.