CN Oct. 24, 2013

Take a look at this screen grab from Google Earth..

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 11.31.31 PM

See those two big black blotches (the one on the top and the one at the bottom) right beside the Calumet River? That’s petcoke, or petroleum coke. It’s a nasty by-product being produced in massive quantities at the BP Whiting refinery just across the state line. It’s filthy, dusty stuff that’s blowing everywhere in South Deering, depositing a grimy, black coating all over people’s houses and yards. And why is it happening in Chicago’s Southland? Because Indiana has more stringent environmental laws.

“If this waste was being stored at Whiting, under the terms of a big federal consent decree,…they have to enclose that waste there, and they have to take all kinds of other steps to keep the dust down,” explains the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne. “Not the same if you take it five miles away in the City of Chicago right there along the Calumet River.”

But it’s not just sitting there blowing around. It’s waiting for the next leg of its journey.

“Most of it’s going overseas,” he explains.  “Most of it goes to China. The exports of petroleum coke to China have just skyrocketed in the last ten years. It corresponds to the increase in the refining of this tar-sands oil from Canada. And in China, a country that doesn’t have the same kind of environmental laws that we do, it’s just burned in power plants there, and it contributes to their air pollution problems and eventually problems here and the entire planet if you consider climate change emissions.”

So the vaunted new source of oil – Canada – is mining this heavy crude from the sands under the forests of Alberta, and sending huge quantities of this viscous, gooey “oil” to Whiting, Indiana, where BP converts it into gasoline and other products. But because it’s so dirty, there’s a lot of residue. And it has to go somewhere. Like the southeast side.

“This is another one of these unaddressed consequences of the steady shift to this oil from Canada,” says Hawthorne. “All kinds of environmental problems with it, not just in Canada, but here in the midwest and worldwide.”

And here’s the kicker. The company that hauls this stuff into Chicago, and sells it to power plants around the world to burn in their coal power plants, is owned by the Koch brothers of Republican fundraising fame.


So what happened last week when Mayor Emanuel quickly dispatched his CHA chief, Charles Woodyard, replacing him the next day with his Buildings Commissioner Michael Merchant? Why did he make the change?

Ethan Michaeli, publisher of We the People Media, and a journalist who’s covered public housing for decades, says Woodyard didn’t make much of a splash in his two years here. “He made very little effort to get to know anybody here in Chicago,” he says. “He didn’t make an effort to know residents, he didn’t get to know real-estate people, political folks or those even in the Rahm Emanuel administration.”

So what role did Woodyard play in advancing the “Plan for Transformation” at the CHA?

“Calling the plan for transformation a plan at this point is a questionable enterprise,” he says. “You’ve had something that was supposed to be a five-year plan that was frankly a ridiculous paper plan to build thousands and thousands of units of replacement public housing in a short period of time…that was extended to a ten-year plan, a fifteen-year plan, and now it’s gonna end up being a twenty-year plan. When you promise a family in public housing that you will be able to come back to a property, and that promise is fulfilled twenty years later, I’m sorry, that’s not a plan.”

There are currently 100,00 people using CHA Section 8 housing vouchers, and Michaeli worries that every former CHA tenant using one of those vouchers is taking up an apartment or residence that was once on the market as an affordable rental unit. So the CHA has to move forward. And a major issue is the quality of the management of the properties currently in the portfolio.

“There’s still a legitimate concern about the way the CHA manages its properties”, Michaeli asserts. “If you’e living across the street from a CHA property you’re gonna be concerned – is the housing authority doing the screening the way it’s supposed to be? Is it doing the maintenance, the policing, the regular landlord stuff? People are not sure that the housing authority yet is a good landlord.”

Tim Novak, investigative reporter for the Sun-Times, points out that there’s another dimension to Woodward’s departure.

Woodyard’s resignation “comes in the wake of an internal bid-rigging investigation,” he explains. “The CHA has hired a former U.S. Attorney. They escorted two people out of the building. It was the company that was hired to oversee what was left of the Plan for Transformation. So I think there’s something more there.”

And finally, Michaeli offers this observation.

“To be honest he was not running the housing authority. There were people that he didn’t appoint who were brought in by (Mayor Emanuel), and those people were really running the housing authority.”

So the CHA announced it would conduct a nationwide search, and the next day the Mayor appointed Merchant. It was apparently a short national search, because they quickly found the perfect CEO. “Just down the hall, as it turns out,” says Michaeli.


And now for the most delicious part of the week’s news. You simply have to watch the final ten minutes of this week’s show to see Tim Novak explain his latest story. 

“I’ve been waiting in the weeds for this deposition,” he says.

He’s referring the the appearance of Richard M. Daley at a deposition to determine just how that contract for the Park Grill in Millennium Park happened. The digging up of Michigan Avenue in the middle of the night to provide free gas to the place, the free garbage pickup, the 30-year tax-free concession deal. And let’s not forget the Park District negotiator who really went all the way to help her former boss get a good deal.

But the award for Best Performance goes to the former Mayor, who tries to convince the lawyers that he just doesn’t remember anything about designing or building Millennium Park. You can read the whole thing here. It’s a must-read.


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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