Friday, December 20, 2013

Petcoke cleanup underway, but it will be awhile before Sout’East Side is clean

The far Southeast corner of Chicago (the land where the eastern boundary is Indiana – NOT Lake Michigan) has always been a heavily industrialized portion of the city.

Chicago's southeast corner far from pristine. Photographs by Gregory Tejeda
It’s a place where the steel mill and other factory jobs that created the bulk of the local economy were located literally across the street. It was a place where the employees could walk to work.

HENCE, IT ALSO is a place that is far from pristine – particularly since it saw decades worth of buildup of various pollutants from back in an era when some people were inclined to think of “environmental cleanup” as some sort of alien concept.

I am a native of that part of Chicago (I am the grandson of immigrant steel mill workers whose one-time employers are now large, vacant plots of land), and my visits to the “old neighborhood” have always included being able to see things that just wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.

Although now, it seems they’re not even being tolerated in places like the East Side or South Chicago – as in a couple of the neighborhoods that comprise that distant part of Chicago. How distant? Try standing on the 106th Street bridge over the Calumet River.

Look off to the north, and you can barely see the tip of the top of the Sears Tower (You call it Willis, I’m refusing to right now).

BUT THIS AREA got the attention of downtown this week when officials reached an agreement with companies that have had piles of petroleum coke along the edge of the Calumet River. That agreement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Illinois attorney general’s office was to be filed with a court on Thursday, although Emanuel said later in the day he would not be willing to go so far as an outright ban in Chicago.

A whole 'nother world from the Loop
Known more commonly as petcoke, the substance is a byproduct of the petroleum-making process. It results in mounds of the substance that then gets blown about by the breezes.

Which means that people who live in the area have been stuck having to accept as fact that their homes will get covered in the petcoke dust. Some people tell stories of finding the dust all over their freshly-washed clothes (if they put them out on a clothesline to dry).

It is inevitable that they (and I, when I have reason to return to visit) have inhaled the petcoke dust. Who knows what long-term damage is being caused?

The Port of Chicago presence (off in the distance) hasn't completely devastated Lake Calumet
THAT IS WHAT has motivated the activist-minded residents of the area, who in turn have put their share of pressure on government officials. Which is why government officials felt inclined to do something that makes it appear as though they’re resolving the situation.

Although it should be noted that earlier this month, locals noticed that the petcoke piles were being put onto ships and being taken out of the area. The agreement reached this week says that companies in the area that have petcoke are going to have to store it indoors, and also will have to monitor the levels of air pollution around those facilities.

Which sounds sensible enough; something that should have been agreed upon a long time ago. Except that such actions create expense that reduce the financial bottom-line, and therefore are considered to be a hassle by the more corporate-minded.

Yes, I’m pleased to learn that something is being done with regards to petcoke. I have relatives who live within blocks of these piles. I’m sure they will (literally) breathe easier.

ALTHOUGH IT’S FAR from over. All those decades of industry have left more than their share of pollution. With the vacant remains of many of those factories still in place, I can’t even envision just how tainted those Southeastern neighborhoods remain.

And how much of a miracle it is that something like Lake Calumet still manages to maintain so many species of nature despite all the toxins in the area.

What would they think in Lake View?
It’s going to be a long time, if ever, that my part of Chicago will be as clean as a place like Beverly or Sauganash – where the concept of a giant pile of salt out in the open would be unheard of, yet doesn’t even capture a second glance from the locals.


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