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of Trouble

After BP started storing millions of tons of a refinery byproduct on the Southeast Side, residents fought back. Their story, told through photos

After BP started storing millions of tons of a refinery byproduct on the Southeast Side, residents fought back. Their story, told through photos

Three years ago, Southeast Side residents started noticing mountains of black dust—some five stories high—rising along the banks of the Calumet River. “It looked like Mordor,” says Olga Bautista, a longtime resident of Vet’s Park. “It took a while to process how grave the problem was.”

She eventually learned that the dust was petroleum coke, or petcoke, a carbon byproduct of oil refining. Carted in on trains from the refinery BP was expanding in Whiting, Indiana, it was being stored at two sites operated by KCBX Terminals, a Koch brothers company—each site just a few hundred yards from residential areas. Bautista and others claim anecdotally that people living nearby have since seen a sharp increase in respiratory problems, including asthma. “There are so many sick kids,” she says. “My cousin’s daughter and a lot of my friends’ kids are constantly going to the doctor.”

The neighborhood: This photo from May shows a petcoke storage site—one of two at the time on Chicago’s Southeast Side—just yards from houses and baseball fields in East Side. “This image really illustrates what’s happening in the neighborhood,” says Terry Evans, who took the shot. “The black on one side, the green on the other, with a train of about 100 cars carrying petcoke snaking through.”

KCBX insists that the dust is not blowing into residential areas. But a study last year by the city found evidence of petcoke on sidewalks in adjacent neighborhoods. The Environmental Protection Agency has cited KCBX for violating air pollution regulations at both sites. The agency also says that petcoke can be harmful if inhaled in large enough quantities. Says Bautista: “What’s happening here is a human rights issue. It’s a crisis.” 


Photographer Terry Evans became aware of the problem in 2013 when a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council gave her a tour of the 10th Ward. “I was stunned by how close the piles were to the neighborhoods,” recalls the Hyde Park resident. She began photographing the petcoke mounds from the air and the residents from the ground. She was impressed by “how fiercely committed the community is to making changes.”

In February, after staging several rallies and marches and writing protest letters, residents celebrated a victory: BP, under pressure from Mayor Emanuel, announced it would no longer store petcoke in Illinois. But the fight is not over. Although KCBX is closing one site altogether, it plans to convert the other into a transfer facility, where petcoke will be loaded onto barges for storage elsewhere. That means uncovered railcars could continue to transport the material to the site on a near-daily basis. And that doesn’t sit well with Bautista: “If we’re going to fully protect the people who live here, we need to get it out of here altogether.”

The Grime

The South Site

Sprinklers, put in place by KCBX in response to protests from the community, spray down the mounds of petcoke at the southernmost site, near 106th Street and the Calumet River, in an attempt to keep the dust from blowing. (KCBX is licensed to move up to 11 million tons through this site per year.) Pressured by residents and the mayor, the company agreed to stop using this location for storage by June 2016, but it will become a transfer site, meaning that petcoke-laden railcars could still rumble through. “I love this image,” says Evans. “It’s beautiful and it’s also horrific.”

The Activists

Olga Bautista
“This fight is about saying we’re not going anywhere. This is where our roots are,” says Vet’s Park resident Olga Bautista, 36, who has participated in marches at the KCBX offices on the South Side and petition drives aimed at both the governor’s and mayor’s offices. “People here have been really politicized. Our back has been pushed against the wall for too long.”
Olga Bautista
Martin Morales, 53, who moved to East Side in 2008, has been among those demonstrating with Bautista. He doesn’t let his four-year-old daughter, Scarlet (pictured), play outside in the neighborhood. “It is unbearable,” he says. “We feel like prisoners in our own homes.”

The North Site

KCBX has committed to closing the site at 100th Street and Commercial Avenue by the end of this summer. But Bautista’s battle continues beyond her community. “We’re not just interested in throwing this stuff into somebody else’s backyard,” she says. “We want to set the precedent for neighborhoods across the country.”


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