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“Stunning, just stunning, just stunning,” said Sheilah Garland, shaking her head as she stared out the window of the bus rolling along a dirt road next to towering black piles of petroleum coke on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

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Nurses and others call for tougher petroleum coke restrictions at a protest near the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana. Photo credit: Kari Lydersen for Midwest Energy News

As an organizer of National Nurses United, a labor union representing about 6,000 nurses in Chicago and 185,000 nationwide, Garland has seen a lot. She represents nurses working in grueling and traumatic situations on a daily basis. And the union has picked fights with powerful politicians, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

But Garland was shocked by the piles of petcoke, about six stories high, located across the street from homes. She was also perturbed to see employees walking onsite without respiratory masks.

The nurses union has joined local residents’ fight to get petcoke transportation and storage banned in Chicago. They see it as a serious public health issue and part of their larger social justice advocacy mission.

Monday, May 12, was a day of activism for the group Global Nurses United, in honor of the 194th birthday of legendary nurse Florence Nightingale. There were events in multiple cities in 11 countries. In Chicago, petcoke was the focus.

Previously the nurses’ union had joined residents marching miles from the petcoke piles to the BP oil refinery in Whiting, IN, that produces most of the petcoke stored in Chicago. And they will be with the struggle for the long haul, they said, in keeping with their national opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and the growth of tar sands refining—which produces large amounts of the waste material.

On May 17, the nurses will join the Sierra Club, 350.org and other groups in a protest near the BP refinery, which recently completed a $3.8 billion expansion to process more tar sands.

“Nurses take this from a very personal perspective,” Garland said. “We deal with patients one on one, we see it in our hospital beds, in our clinics. When young people are dying of pulmonary issues, this is very real to us.”

The Chicago petcoke piles are also an attractive target for the nurses since they have been pushing for a tax on financial transactions, known as a “Robin Hood Tax,” to pay for more health care and social programs. KCBX, which owns the petcoke piles, is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, often highlighted in the national campaign for the Robin Hood Tax.

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The Southeast Environmental Task Force has long hosted bus tours, highlighting both sources of pollution and of hope on this heavily industrial swath of the city once home to steel mills and now characterized by landfills, scrap metal yards and the storage of waste materials.

The task force still leads a variety of tours, including a birding expedition in May. But much of their energy is now focused on educating people about petcoke, as leaders Tom Shepherd and Peggy Salazar noted on the bus with the nurses.

The task force’s efforts helped make petcoke a high-profile issue last fall, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Gov. Pat Quinn (D-IL) and Mayor Emanuel all made moves to regulate and limit petcoke storage. In late April the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance which limits future petcoke storage and mandates storage safeguards. But local residents say the timeline for that ordinance is too long—allowing piles to stay uncovered for two years—and it allows too much petcoke to remain in the city.

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Petcoke piles in Chicago, IL. Photo credit: Global Nurses United

They are demanding a moratorium on petcoke storage and transport in Chicago, as the residents and nurses said in a press conference at City Hall following their tour.

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