Residents on the city's Southeast Side say the chemical mixture also known as "petcoke" is coating their homes and property. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched a campaign to get residents to report pet coke problems.
There are mini-mountains of it. Petroleum coke - the high-sulfur residue left from the refining of crude oil. For years, "petcoke" has been piled for temporary storage in industrial yards along the Calumet River on Chicago's Southeast Side - near the yards of neighborhoods where - when the winds whip up - residents are visited by clouds of "Petcoke" dust.
"If you happen to be outside, it'll cover you and you'll have this oily residue," said resident Olga Bautista.
"If we wanted to have a barbeque, we had to wash everything down," said Peggy Salazar.
Salazar lives three blocks from one of the petcoke storage sites, so the issue has been on her radar for years. But it's taken on a heightened sense of urgency and reaction with much more petcoke destined for this area. Pictures of an August petcoke cloud, and more organized opposition from neighbors have involved the state EPA and attorney general's office in lawsuits against the companies storing the petcoke.
"It's changing something already. It's changing us as a community. We're learning how to organize and work together," said Kate Koval.
Residents contend that the practice of watering down the petcoke piles doesn't do the job of minimizing dust - especially on warm, windy days. The city council is considering an ordinance that would require the petcoke to be walled off on three sides with the only open side facing the river. Not good enough say many residents, who want the petcoke gone.
"It has to be enclosed, not covered, enclosed, in a structure where they do all the operations inside so that then the dust might be able to be minimalized," Salazar said.
Much of the petcoke stored in Chicago comes from the BP refinery in Whiting, which is scheduled to significantly increase its refinery capacity and its petcoke byproduct. KCBX, one of the storage terminals, says it has a system of computer-controlled water cannons and is testing a system that could automatically activate them based on wind and weather conditions. The attorney general's lawsuit contends that whatever systems are in place, they have not adequately controlled the dust nor met air quality standards.