Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How strict can we get with petcoke regulations when I suspect most people don’t have a clue what it is

When it comes to petcoke, I have a funny bias in favor of the local residents.

I’m not one of them any longer. But I am the grandson of a pair of Mexican immigrants who found their particular version of the “American Dream” through work in the steel mills that used to dominate the 10th Ward.

HECK, I STILL have relatives who live in places like Hegewisch, the East Side and South Deering (and who know exactly what Slag Valley is).

So when I hear about petcoke, it’s not some abstract concept. Nor is it something that inspires silly gags about colas or cocker spaniels.

I have seen the piles of the petroleum byproduct and fully appreciate how decades of industrial pollutants have given the air in the city’s far southeast corner a particular stink.

And I totally appreciate how people who still live in the area, including an uncle and a couple of cousins of mine these days, would love to see the piles of pollutants removed.

THE FACT THAT it easily gets blown about and can wind up adding a layer of grime to one’s home (or totally coat their newly-washed laundry with filth) makes life all the more unpleasant.

So I can comprehend the disgust felt by local residents when they say they want an outright ban on petcoke being stored within the city – only to be told by attorneys for city government (who probably avoid traveling to the 10th Ward at all costs) that they’re being unreasonable.

Seriously, they’ve been told that the industry that remains along the Calumet River has a right to be able to store the substance in some way.

Salt -- one of the least disgusting things piled up out in the open in the 10th Ward. Photograph by Gregory Tejeda
But what is the way that can be acceptable to local residents?

IN RECENT MONTHS, there has been speculation about some sort of petcoke storage ordinance. I’ve been at hearings where talk has been of requiring the substance to be stored indoors in specially-built structures that would be located quite a ways away from residential areas.

Although when one considers that industry in the 10th Ward can literally be found right across the street from homes that families still live in, it is an odd environment.

There is much that gets tolerated by city officials about the 10th Ward that would never be accepted elsewhere. A lot of otherwise unacceptable conditions get “grandfathered” in because it would (allegedly) be too expensive to get things up to code.

Just like how there are still troughs for men to pee in when they watch a ball game at Wrigley Field. At least with that disgusting concept, there is something resembling history and tradition.

YOU JUST DON’T get the same sentiment when having to breathe in petcoke.

Which is why I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disgust when I learned about what happened Tuesday. Activists from the 10th Ward were at City Hall, hoping for support for petcoke regulations that they felt were too weak, but were better than nothing.

Instead, the council’s Zoning Committee got to review an even-weaker proposal – one that permits petcoke storage on-site if companies can document that it was consumed on-site as part of a manufacturing process.

It also would allow for stockpiles of petcoke to be burned.

YOU JUST KNOW that will add to the stink in the air around the East Side. How weak will this regulation become by the time aldermen get around to approving something?

Now I realize that industry is not all-bad. It does provide employment (albeit, not as much as it did several decades ago). And part of the appeal of living in the 10th Ward once upon a time was that the working class could get those decently-paying jobs within walking distance of their homes.

My father grew up in a house in South Chicago that was just a couple of blocks from the one-time U.S. Steel Southworks plant – the one that developers now want to turn into an upscale housing development right on Lake Michigan.

Which is a cute idea – although I wonder how many people would want to live there once they realize its proximity to communities that have those petcoke piles lying about.

Sitting in Chicago's 'corner'
BECAUSE CITY OFFICIALS right now seem more concerned about the business interests than they are of certain residents in the land of alphabet-oriented streets (Avenue O, anyone?). Perhaps they’ll get serious about cleaning up the mess if those upscale residents ever do settle in the city’s southeast corner?

Or if they ever get political clout that can get things done. Because I also couldn’t help but notice the same Zoning Committee gave its support Tuesday to construction of a new heliport on the Chicago River in the Bridgeport neighborhood.

It must be nice to be the neighborhood of Chicago mayors, rather than one of piles of petcoke!


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