This is Olga Bautista. Mother, environmental activist, Koch Brothers opponent. We meet Olga in her home in Southeast Chicago, a community affected by the toxic chemical called: petroleum coke, or pet-coke.
You know, when you have the Koch brothers and a mom like myself, you know, in a group of other working class and working poor folks who are saying not here, not today, not anymore… I think that speaks volumes to what needs to happen and the risks that we have to take, you know, if we want to win. You know, I think the more you risk the more you’re gonna win.
About four years ago, we learned that there was petroleum coke, which is this black stuff that was being stored along the banks of the Calumet River, and it’s just feet from people’s homes. And we always had these big piles of black stuff, but it used to be coal that was being stored there, and when the coal fire plants closed down, these companies that were in the business of storing bulk material switched to storing pet-coke, but they were both black piles so we didn’t know that there was any change in the products that were being stored there.
So petroleum coke is a byproduct of refining crude oil and tar sands. Anytime you make gas, jet fuel, you get pet-coke. It’s sold to other companies as an industrial fuel. But when it’s just sitting on a pile like that, especially in Chicago, the windy city, light gusts of wind blow this fine powder into the community and people will breathe it in, it ends up in the backyard pools, it ends up in your dog bowl, your water dish for your pet, it was not good. We were scared, we didn’t know how this was effecting us, how it was effecting our kids.
We actually didn’t know how bad the situation was until the CDC did this report about the toxicity of pet-coke. And it was discovered that it was actually, it could actually cause heart problems, for people who already have respiratory problems it could send them to the hospital, there was even the threat that you can die if you had these like heart conditions and that sort of thing. So after that, we got really serious about making sure that, that we stopped the storage of the pet-coke here, that the city do something about it, that the state get involved.
A few environmental justice activists and volunteers that were going to the Southeast Environmental Task Force learned about this problem and wanted to get organized and make sure that there was a community response to this problem. And then upon further investigation we discovered that these piles of pet-coke were actually coming from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana,
We were then shocked learn the company that handles these materials was owned by the koch brothers. we just thought that we were not going to be able to do anything about that, you know, it was the Koch brothers and BP. But we started to post information on Facebook on the Eastside page. We started people, other people started to post information about who the Koch Brothers were and about, you know, a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. And we were like, you know what? Like this is not far-fetched. Like this is actually something that people are working on across the country, across the globe, and we took on the fight here for environmental justice.
And after months and years of fighting for the pet-coke to be banned, we actually won regulations in the city of Chicago. we’re not the coalition to regulate pet-coke, we’re the coalition to ban pet-coke, so we intend to still fight this and to draw more attention to it. This kind of material should not be near people.
So in the middle of organizing around the pet-coke and environmental justice here in the community, there was elections and at that time, there wasn’t a contender that was taking up the issue of environmental justice, about, you know, the immigration issues, about the mass incarceration. And the folks from the group that I belong to said, you know what, Olga? You should just run for office. At that time I just thought that was wild. Then we thought about like what that would mean for us and, you know, running for office on the local level meant that there would be debates, there would be a platform, there would be interviews with the editorial boards of the Sun-Times and the Tribune. And that actually there was gonna be a lot of opportunities to talk about the problems that we were experiencing here. And we decided that we were not gonna relinquish that opportunity.
I didn’t get the most votes, but we did change the conversation. We’ve been told that women should not run for office, and I was told that I shouldn’t run for office because I had small children, and that that wasn’t gonna be fair to them. As if the situation that we currently have is fair to them. They would benefit a lot more by having an example of someone who is just going to say enough is enough, we’re gonna do something different here and because we deserve it, because we matter.
Poor people make miracles happen every single day, you know.
From feeding your kids when you only have a few dollars left in your account to getting your children to the doctor and being resourceful and making things happen. And yeah, so, I think we’re very equipped to decide what our future can be and how we’re gonna get there. Poor folks and people who have been in situations like us here and who are getting dumped on by the Koch brothers, our backs are already pushed against the wall. The only way forward is forward. §
Olga Bautista, 2017.