Community Member

Southeast Environmental Task Force

Southeast Side Chicago, Illinois

Sergio Maciel’s artwork *displayed here* is now featured in front of Patagonia’s Lincoln Park and Mag Mile stores in Chicago. It exposes the environmental injustice communities of color deal with every day.

Chicago has long been known as the “Windy City.” When that wind bears cool breezes from Lake Michigan on a hot summer day, it is welcome. But for residents of the Southeast Side of Chicago in 2013, those winds held something far more insidious. 

“When the wind kicks up over Chicago’s Calumet River, the area’s residents get nervous. Piles of oil-refinery waste line the banks and, during a particularly bad storm in 2013, clouds of black dust billowed through the streets and darkened the skies of the Southeast Side’s working-class community.”, Dirty Battle In Chicago’s Backyards, 2015

Imagine if you will, that a company decided to store petcoke in uncovered piles, sometimes five stories high, at terminals along a river for easy export, near homes, schools and parks in your community. Why is that a problem? Petcoke is a byproduct of refining heavy tar sands oil. It is a fine, black dust meant to be sold to countries with less rigorous environmental standards to be burned for energy as a dirty, cheap alternative to coal.

What would you do? Along with an uproar from the entire community, The Southeast Environmental Task Force joined forces with NRDC in April 2014 and filed a notice of intent to sue KCBX and its owners, the Koch brothers, to do something about the poisonous petcoke piles. Then in 2015, “The city of Chicago…banned the storage and through-transfer of petroleum coke from one of two Southeast Side KCBX Terminals Co. facilities starting at the end of June.” Public pressure had prevailed, although one terminal on the south side was still processing petcoke.

Sources of air pollution would face a more rigorous review under a bill backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. General Iron’s proposed move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side is an impetus for the reform. Annie Costabile/Sun-Times file

This is just one example of the tremendous work of the The Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), formed in 1989 by Marian Byrnes. The organization began with another fight, as a coalition of 30 grassroots organizations came together to oppose a garbage incinerator proposed at an old steel site. 

As a working class community, the Southeast Side of Chicago has endured generations of industrial pollution. Steel and chemical manufacturing sites left contaminated vacant lots, industries processing waste materials fill the air with noxious fumes and all the industries no one wants next door, sewage and garbage plants, incinerators, asphalt and natural gas production, etc., have become the community’s neighbors.

In 2015, Southeast Environmental Taskforce executive director Peggy Salazar holds up a sooty hand after palming a garage door across the street from the area’s last remaining petcoke storage facility. Credit: Robin Amer/DNAinfo

SETF is an environmental nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the southeast side and south suburbs of Chicago by promoting environmental education, pollution prevention, and sustainable development. Its mission speaks of creating a “southeast Chicagoland [that] will one day serve as a national and international model for the integration of industrial, residential and natural areas into a productive, green, and environmentally sustainable urban community.”

They have fought off the proposed conversion of Lake Calumet into an airport, opposed landfills at O’Brien Lock, participated in the 2001 Calumet Initiative which restored and enhanced open space and economic opportunities, extended landfill moratoriums, and helped to close the Stateline Coal Power Plant. In March 2021, together with allies, they succeeded in drawing the EPA’s attention to a proposed permit to General Iron for a controversial car-shredding operation in the Southeast Side, resulting in the permit being halted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. As Peggy Salazar, SETF’s Directory, stated, “We deserve clean air, water and soil and we deserve a real say in the permitting process.”

Gina Rodriguez and other Chicago South East Side Coalition members gather for a rally to ban Petcoke.

Currently SETF is campaigning for a ground-breaking approach to handling development in marginalized communities. Currently, when industry applies for permits, neither the violations the company had committed in the past, nor the current population of industries was taken into account in evaluating that permit. SETF wants “cumulative burden” to be taken into account.

They were among the organizations of the Chicago Environmental Justice Network that provided input for and are advocating for HB4093. This bill, “introduced by Rep. Sonya Harper, creates an enhanced community engagement process when considering permits for new, large air pollution sources in environmental justice communities and requires the review of the cumulative impact of air pollution sources as a part of the permitting process.”

The Stop General Iron Campaign members doing door-to-door education and petitioning.

In an interview recently, Olga Bautista, SETF’s President, summed up their goal, “Ultimately, we need a plan that is not just sustainable, but one that is restorative.”

Written by Michele Gielis

For more information:

Johnson unveils city reforms to fight environmental racism, Chicago Sun Times, Sept 2023

Pritzker backs air pollution protections in overburdened communities, Chicago SunTimes, By Brett Chase  May 26, 2021

PRESS RELEASE: Chicago Environmental Justice Network Puts Forward Proposal To Address Cumulative Pollution Impact On Environmental Justice Communities, May 26, 2021

Confronting a Legacy of Environmental Racism on Chicago’s Southeast Side, The Nature Conservancy, by Michelle Carr, April 21, 2021 

Southeast Side Coalition Unveils ‘Good Neighbor’ Blueprint for Developers, WTTW, by Patty Wetli, May 26, 2020

This Earth Day, Fight To Save The Southeast Side From Pollution, Advocates Urge: ‘This Neighborhood Is A Sacrifice Zone’ Block Club Chicago, by Bob Chiarito, April 22, 2020

Chicago petcoke battle revealed a new threat — and residents were prepared to fight it, Energy News, by Kari Lydersen, June 22, 2018

NRDC – Gina Ramirez profile – April 2016

Chicago Bans Petcoke From One of Two Remaining Southeast Side Storage Sites, by Robin Amer, June 25, 2015

Lawmakers Want Feds To Do Petcoke Impact Study, DNA Info, by Robin Amer, July 2, 2015

A Dirty Battle in Chicago’s Backyards, NRDC, August 13, 2015

First it was Detroit, now ‘PetKoch’ piling up in Chicago, Energy News, by Kari Lydersen, October 14, 2013

Michele Gielis

Michele Gielis

Michele has spent the last decade helping nonprofits raise their voice for change. She looks to make action meaningful by connecting people to the technology and messages that bring resonance and resilience. Michele is proud to support the Anthropocene Alliance working to get communities to #HigherGround


Gina Ramirez


Social Media

Climate Impacts

Air Pollution


Fighting Industrial Contamination, Halting Bad Development, Renewable Energy

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