A crowd of people looking into a secret meeting

Elected officials are opting out of secret Koppers community meetings about air pollution.

But the company says the meetings will continue — in secret.

Written by
Edited by Luis Velazquez

Elected officials and public employees from the 7,500-person Village of Stickney are no longer planning to attend meetings of the secretive Koppers Community Advisory Panel, the company-sponsored public relations initiative meant to combat news coverage about air pollution and unresolved Illinois Environmental Protection Agency violations near its Cook County coal tar plant.

But Koppers, a publicly-traded chemicals company headquartered in Pittsburgh, isn’t getting rid of its community panel, it said in a statement. Instead, it’ll continue holding the meetings, mostly in secret, given that the company hosts them, not a public body, and aren’t subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act. “The Stickney Community Advisory Panel (CAP) is active and there are no plans to discontinue it,” the company said in its statement. “Meetings are always scheduled based on when community members are available.”

In April, Stickney officials said they would no longer attend the quarterly Koppers meetings after MuckRock and the Independiente reported on their existence, and the lack of involvement from community groups, elected officials and residents in Stickney and neighboring Cicero. The Koppers-paid organizer of the meetings subsequently canceled the scheduled April 11 meeting at the local YMCA.

The Koppers community panel’s two other 2024 meeting dates are July 11 and Oct. 10, according to company documents obtained through a Illinois Freedom of Information Act request.

The invitation-only meetings come on the heels of increased scrutiny on Koppers’ Stickney coal tar plant, which is the subject of four open Illinois EPA violations dating back to 2020 that have been forwarded to the state attorney general’s office for further action. The Illinois EPA has created a Koppers resource website, with documents related to all four Illinois EPA violations, due to “significant public interest” in the facility.

Citing the Independiente and MuckRock’s reporting and the region’s dismal ranking on the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic, representing Cicero resident and activist Delia Barajas, sent a letter to the Illinois EPA in April, requesting a public meeting, a subsequent written comment period and an environmental justice analysis related to the Koppers plant.

Based on EPA data, nearly 291,000 people live within a three-mile radius of the plant, and 84% of them are people of color.

The state attorney general’s office said it received more information from the Illinois EPA related to Koppers’ alleged violations in December, saying in a statement that it is “evaluating the matter.”

The Illinois EPA denied our state FOIA request for more information related to the unresolved December case against Koppers, citing an exemption in state law for “materials prepared or compiled by or for a public body in anticipation of a criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding upon the request of an attorney advising the public body.”

In response to questions, Illinois state Rep. Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez (D-Cicero) said that “it’s no secret that Cicero and Stickney’s air and water is under threat from years of industry and our unique position in Chicagoland. I am confident that the Attorney General will investigate these EPA violations at the Koppers plant fully and put the health of our neighboring communities first. A better future for Cicero and Stickney residents is paved by strong protections on our most critical resources: our people, our air and our water.”

Koppers didn’t respond to requests for comment about the Illinois EPA and attorney general’s case against them. But long-standing issues at the Stickney coal-tar plant have begun to affect the company’s bottom line, documents show.

For its first-quarter earnings report, Koppers’ CEO Leroy Ball acknowledged that an “unplanned outage” at the Stickney plant was a drag on the company.

“An unplanned outage at our facility in Stickney, Illinois, caused by weather-related factors that contributed to higher costs early in the quarter, was far from the only factor, but ultimately made the challenging market dynamics even more difficult to offset,” he said during a conference call in May.

It’s unclear if that outage is related to a Dec. 15, 2023, incident, where an “operator error” caused the plant’s naphthalene thermal oxidizer to shut down for several hours that evening, causing hours of increased pollution of the chemical.

Naphthalene, one of the chemicals that Koppers emits the most of, is often used in fuels, such as petroleum, and pesticides, such as moth balls. Of several hazardous pollutants that Koppers emits a steady stream of, naphthalene and another cancer-linked chemical, benzene, stand out.

Koppers emits more of these two pollutants than any other facility in Cook County.

Naphthalene can cause headaches and dizziness. When inhaled as a gas, naphthalene enters the body, breaking it down to other chemicals that react with cells and damage tissues. This toxicity kills insects, which is why it’s used in pesticides like mothballs. The EPA categorizes naphthalene as a chemical that possibly causes cancer. However, the state of California has classified naphthalene as a substance known to cause cancer since 2002.

In a notice published on the Illinois EPA website, the agency described a recent application from Koppers to revise a permit that would allow the company to construct a new truck loading rack and use other current racks to load trucks with naphthalene.

According to the notice, the application is currently under review by the Bureau of Air (BOA).

According to documents MuckRock and Independiente received in open-records requests, Koppers constructed a new naphthalene distillation plant in 2019. Since then, Koppers has received as many citations as it did in the two decades before — all but one for alleged failure to control air pollution.

Dillon Bergin of MuckRock contributed to this report.