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Olga Bautista ready for Chicago’s city hall

Indiana Harbor
Indiana Harbor, which ships petcoke from BP's Whiting Refinery to KCBX Terminals in southeast Chicago, only 7 miles away.

Imagine living in a neighbourhood that houses waste from an oil refinery, an animal processing plant, a steel mill and a plant that makes sulphur pellets.

Olga Bautista lives in such a neighbourhood – Southeast Side Chicago – with her husband and two children. The outspoken community organizer is now running for city council with the hope that she can revitalize the neighbourhood and replace these dirty industries with sustainable jobs.

Bautista is behind the Southeast Chicago Coalition to Ban Petcoke, an organization that is trying to rid the neighbourhood of petroleum coke (also known as petcoke), a by-product of refining oil. British Petroleum (BP) spent $4.2 billion last year to quadruple the amount of crude oil its refinery in Whiting, Indiana can process from Canada’s oil sands. The refinery ships its petcoke to southeast Chicago to be stored in massive piles at two locations owned by Koch Industries Inc.

The community has been fighting BP, Koch Industries, the City of Chicago and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) for over a year, saying the oily substance is blowing around the neighborhood and possibly endangering their health. The coalition has yet to see a moratorium on petcoke, but Bautista’s stamina and dedication could win her a seat on Chicago’s city council, making her an even stronger force to be reckoned with.

What follows is an edited version of a conversation with Bautista about her concerns and hopes for her community.

CK: Could you start by telling me about your community, Southeast Chicago, and why we should pay attention to it?

BAUTISTA: The neighbourhood used to be a hub for steel industry, and there used to be a lot of jobs associated with that. The neighbourhood had a downtown, almost like a main strip, with a theatre and shopping and all kinds of other things. Since the 1970s, when the steel mills started closing, the neighbourhood has been in a collective depression. More Mexican families have moved into the neighborhood and a lot of bilingual families. That’s how my family is, too.

The BP refinery is a few miles away in Whiting, Indiana. It’s very close. We’re seeing large amounts of petcoke being stored and coming through on trains, barges, trucks.

CK: When did the issue with the Petcoke begin and how did it change the neighbourhood?

BAUTISTA: Last year, around August, my neighbor Kate Koval was volunteering with the Southeast Environmental Task Force. They had gone on a boat tour and discovered petcoke in the water; it caused the swirls that you see when there’s gas or oil in the water. They were able to document it by taking pictures. So we started to learn about it and Google it. We found articles about the Koch brothers in Detroit and the petcoke piles there, and that people were concerned about this in other parts of the country.

CK: What does it look like in your neighbourhood when the petcoke gets swept up into the air? What effect does the petcoke have on your daily lives?

Bautista (right) with two supporters of her campaign for alderwoman of southeast Chicago
Bautista (right) with two supporters of her campaign for alderwoman of southeast Chicago

BAUTISTA: During that time when Kate first started volunteering, they were doing some maneuvering of the petcoke and upgrading the site, so all of the petcoke from one site was moved to another. The piles were so huge and the weather was dry and windy, so there was a perfect storm. My friend’s mom was celebrating her 60th birthday outdoors and the petcoke got all over the food; it got everywhere. They had to throw all of the food away and go inside. There was also a little league game at a nearby field and they called the game because it looked like the neighbourhood was on fire. It was dark black. It looked like smoke, but people couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It was just everywhere.

Since then, we haven’t had any situations quite like that. The petcoke has been stored in smaller piles, and we had a really rainy summer and fall this year, so it has helped to settle the dust. But we’re concerned that we can’t always bank on the conditions to stay as they are right now. What worries us is that regulations and ordinances have been proposed and adopted by the city of Chicago based on the fact that people haven’t been calling as much to make complaints. For us, it’s a problem that they’re using that as a way to gauge what’s going on with the petcoke in the community because we have also found petcoke is being stored on that actual river. At one time, there can be 30-40 barges full to the brim of petcoke on the river.

CK: You have done a significant amount of community organizing in your area. How did that begin?

BAUTISTA: Kate Koval hosted a handful of meetings at home and invited people from the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), and Josh Mogerman [who works for the NRDC] to come down and explain why the situation has gotten to where it is. Josh explained that the upgrades at the BP refinery were made to be able to process heavier tar sands oil, and so we started to learn about it and started to post a lot on the community Facebook page. Our vocabulary changed during this process. The people who were coming together around the issue, decided to start the Southeast Chicago Coalition to Ban Petcoke so that we could have a united community response to what was happening.

CK: Take me through what happened in that first year of your fight against petcoke.

BAUTISTA: Kate Koval and Mari Barboza, two organizers, went house-to-house in the Wolf Park neighbourhood closest to the where the petcoke is being stored and gave out fliers and invited people to a community meeting at the neighbourhood park. A lot of people came to that first meeting; the press was there, the alderman was there, the IEPA was there, and the community had a lot of questions about the petcoke. The IEPA and the alderman were shocked that an emergency injunction and a cease and desist were being talked about.

We learned at that first meeting that the IEPA had been doing regular inspections at the site and this really upset the people who were at the meeting. They were shocked that regular inspections were taking place and this crisis had fallen through the cracks. After that, there was an article in the Chicago Tribune about the petcoke and the IEPA hosted a town hall meeting in the neighbourhood. We gave out fliers for that second town hall meeting and we packed the room. It was pretty much standing room only. People showed up with signs and we were asking for an emergency injunction until a thorough investigation had been completed, but they wouldn’t do it. We are still calling for the same thing. Eventually, city council proposed regulations that would keep the companies here but required them to enclose their operations.

CK: What does it mean to you that you have so many waste industries in your neighbourhood, a largely minority community?

BAUTISTA: Whether they planned it that way or not, the fact is that it’s mostly minorities, working class, and it’s not in an area where the Koch brothers would live, or the mayor, Rham Emannuel. So for us, it’s definitely insulting because this is a very working class neighbourhood. These are teachers, nurses, police officers, firemen, and people who work in the service industry. This is the backbone of the city. It just feels to us that these companies are much better protected than the people who actually make the city operate and work.

CK: You’ve begun a campaign to run for city council. Tell me about your revitalization plan to bring sustainable jobs to the community.

BAUTISTA: Along the lakefront, there is a site of an old steel mill that is being redeveloped at this moment and the idea is to build luxury condos there. The plan is to build a green building; it’s going to be LEED construction, there are thoughts to do offshore windmills, solar panels, rooftop gardens. All of these things sound really wonderful. We want those things for the people who live here now. Not for people who are going to be moving in 30-40 years from now.

We don’t want this kind of industry that pollutes and provides very few jobs for the community. We are interested in workforce development training like they have in Sustainable South Bronx, a green organization in the Bronx. They do 15–20 week trainings where people learn how to retrofit houses and small businesses to make them more energy efficient. They even went to the extent of getting banks to help finance these programs for low-income families. And they also paint roofs this silver colour so it keeps it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They do rooftop gardening.

When I was in New York City, I toured Sustainable South Bronx and met two women who had gone through the program. These are moms who are excited to do this kind of work. They are climbing onto rooftops, doing the painting. Another part of the training – a big chunk of it – is vocabulary, where people learn terms like environmental racism at the same time as they are learning how to conserve energy. And I think it is crucial to have both of those aspects in training.

CK: If elected, what would your neighbourhood look like if you could achieve anything during your term?

BAUTISTA: The first thing I would do is participatory budgeting. Each ward gets $1.3 million. Those are monies that are used for things that the community needs. What they do in other parts of the city is have a fair where people present their projects and then the best ones are chosen. There is a vote within the ward to decide which of the projects are going to get funded. As long as someone can prove they live in the ward and are 16 years or older, it doesn’t matter if they have legal status or if they have committed a felony. This would be first thing I do because who is going to tell us what is going to improve our lives? Nobody. We know what’s going to make our lives better. We need programs on how to prevent foreclosures or how to finance getting a solar panel on our houses, even beautifying the neighbourhood to have more community gardens, to remediate land so that we can use it to grow our food.

CK: So what would your neighborhood look like if all of this happens?

BAUTISTA: We would have a neighborhood that is meeting the human needs of the people who are living here, where people aren’t hungry and have access to food and public transportation. We would also want to meet needs for recreation. I talked about a lot of the problems in southeast Chicago, but we also have a beautiful lakefront. We don’t have access to the river; it is exclusively for industry. It’s very difficult to canoe or kayak. It’s dangerous because there is so much activity with these huge barges coming through. We don’t have access and we want it. Living next to the river should be an amenity to the community, not to the industry.

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