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Control mountains of pollution

THE FIRST AMENDMENT

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Updated: December 7, 2013 6:19AM



Mountains of refinery waste along a mile and a half of the Calumet River on the Southeast Side are throwing off clouds of hazardous dust that need to be brought under control quickly.

People living near those black mountains, which soar as high as five stories, say the dust it so pervasive it covers cars, awnings and food set out for backyard picnics. Families keep children inside and say black soot piles up in their homes if they don’t keep their doors and windows closed. Photos they have taken show dust darkening the sky. As the piles grow, the dust gets worse, and those leviathan heaps are expected to keep growing. Authorities need to act before the Southeast Side gets its own re-enactment of the Dust Bowl, but with dust that’s more hazardous than windblown soil.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has filed a complaint against one company that stores the waste, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office has opened an investigation, and a class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday in Cook County Court. Those are all excellent moves, but now let’s keep the heat on until the air is clean.

Above all, existing rules on so-called fugitive dust must be strictly enforced, and regulations must be updated to catch up with the rapidly changing world of refinery waste.

“Those piles look ominous and bad right now, but that is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We are going to be buried under this stuff, not just locally but also nationally.”

The gritty dust — which contains sulfur, carbon and heavy metals — comes from petcoke, a refinery byproduct that arrives via barge, truck and rail. As refineries have turned to dirty tar sands oil, the mountains of petcoke have mushroomed on sites that once held stockpiles of coal, crushed limestone or other bulk material. Much of the petcoke comes from the BP refinery in Whiting, Ind., which is undergoing a renovation that will triple the amount of petcoke it produces by the end of the year, making it the second-largest source of petcoke in the world. The more that the refinery produces, the bigger the mountains will get on the Southeast Side, as the petcoke waits to be shipped to other states or countries for use by the aluminum, cement and steel industries or by power plants that use petcoke as a cheaper alternative to coal.

Excessive exposure to petcoke dust can cause skin, eye or respiratory infection. Breathing it continuously can damage lungs. The swirling dust also can contaminate water it settles into.

“Sometimes you have a cookout and you notice on your potato salad, you see black dust all over it,” said Alfredo Mendoza, one of the class-action lawsuit plaintiffs. “How can you eat this stuff? And when the wind blows, the dust becomes like a black sky.”

The class action lawsuit asks that the piles of petcoke be enclosed — as Indiana would require if BP kept the petcoke on its Whiting site — to keep the dust out of the air. One of the companies has said that’s too expensive, but that it has installed sprinklers to suppress the dust.

Too expensive? Not if it’s your kid breathing in that foul stuff.

Recently, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing ordered piles of petcoke removed from that city. If other measures don’t work, Chicago should do the same.

Until then, we won’t be able to breathe easy.

— Chicago Sun-Times



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