There have been strong words said here in Illinois in recent weeks related to the mountains of oil refining waste blighting the Southeast Side of Chicago of late. Despite the intense rhetoric, so far neighbors living near the sites where petroleum coke has been mounded in close proximity to homes, schools and parks have been repeatedly disappointed.
They want the piles gone.
And that is reasonable, responsible and proper.
They rightfully feel that the stuff poses a physical health threat, from the clouds of windblown soot that have been observed whipping into the neighborhood, and a threat to the future of their neighborhoods, from the creeping blight caused by the mounding of waste in the community. They rightly conclude that being a dumping ground limits the slow economic return that the area has been struggling to effect following the disappearance of the steel mills that once dominated the landscape. Who wants to live amongst ashy oil remnants?
Despite all the strong words from officials, none of the policies offered up in response to the sorry situation have actually threatened to wipe the petcoke piles away. Certainly, regulations offered by the City and State might help reduce some risks, but they would not eliminate the problem as many on the Southeast Side would prefer.
But there is a ray of hope coming this week from City Hall.
Mayor Emmanuel will be advancing a new measure through the City Council. It is an ordinance that would ban new petcoke facilities in the City and prevent expansion of currently existing operations. Given realistic concerns we have heard from neighbors who fear that empty industrial properties in the area may soon harbor more of these mounds of ashy tar sands oil leftovers, this move is key to preventing the blight from spreading.
True, that doesn’t remove present sites from the community. But it’s worth giving a serious listen to what Mayor Emanuel is saying. ABC7 in Chicago aired this interview this week with Rahm doing an awfully interesting Wyatt Earp impression:
The thing is that there is history, law and moral authority to back the Mayor. In a very similar situation, the Mayor backed a strong grassroots neighborhood push to close the Fisk and Crawford coal plants with the threat of ever-tightening regulatory enforcement. The folks on the Southeast Side are just as serious as the dedicated folks in Pilsen and Little Village—they are not going to let up or give up on their community. And it sounds like he is offering a similar, ever-tightening set of constraints for petcoke and the Koch brothers-run company blighting the banks of the Calumet River as was presented to the coal plants on the Chicago River: grim prospects of continuing public outcry, strict requirements to respect public health and the threat of City inspectors focusing attention on bad conditions and impacts emanating from plant property.
Like the community, I’d like to see this stuff banned from any kind of proximity to residential areas, schools and parks.
But I can understand why that direct action might be hard. When I was Commissioner of the Environment for the City of Chicago, we found ourselves fighting similar battles over solid waste on the Southeast Side. The City’s zoning and land use authorities were similarly used to end the blight, endangerment and outlandish conduct of landfills, incinerators and illegal dumping that also unduly burdened this part of town. It worked back then, though we had to repeatedly use all legal authorities and processes to enforce the law. What the Mayor is proposing is solidly grounded in the City's land use authority and the history. Rahm Emanuel is a straight shooter, utilizing time-tested legal powers with deep roots in the American tradition and rule of law. The petcoke pushers should heed what he is saying. The jig is up. Time to move on.
Petcoke conveyer photo taken on November 18, 2013 at KCBX North by City of Chicago Department of Health.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.