The Tribune has carried a couple of articles recently that in an easily imaginable alternate reality would have been called fearless—or unthinkable.
Monday's story noted that attorney general Lisa Madigan is suing KCBX Terminals, "one of the companies piling up huge mounds of refinery waste on Chicago's Southeast Side." The Tribune reported that KCBX Terminals is accused of "repeatedly violating state law by allowing lung-damaging particulate matter to swirl off piles of petroleum coke and coal along the Calumet River."
That sounds unpleasant and surely is. "The lawsuit follows months of complaints from residents in the East Side and South Deering neighborhoods who say the noxious clouds often are so thick they are forced to stay inside with their windows closed," the Tribune told us.
On October 18, a much longer Tribune article called the environmental travesty to Chicago's attention. We learned that British Petroleum is installing new equipment that is tripling the amount of petroleum coke produced by its refinery in Whiting, and that to avoid the most stringent terms of the Clean Air Act, the petcoke is being shipped to storage sites in Chicago. The upshot is that the expansion "will turn the sprawling Indiana plant into the world's second-largest source of petroleum coke. . . and Chicago into one of the biggest repositories of the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste." This year the refinery will produce some 2.2 million tons of petcoke, more than three times what it turned out before "the refinery was overhauled to process oil from the tar sands region of Alberta."
And in Deering and the East Side, "residents say black clouds of dust blow off uncovered piles of petcoke and coal in the area so frequently that people are forced to keep their children inside with the windows closed."
It sounds grim, and also exactly like the kind of troubling situation a responsible newspaper brings to its readers' attention. Moreover, the Tribune fixed responsibility. All the BP petcoke from Whiting winds up in Chicago dump sites owned by KCBX Terminals, and KCBX "is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy conservative industrialists who back groups that challenge the science behind climate change and oppose many environmental regulations."
That's not a flattering introduction. Would we have read it—or anything else about KCBX in the Tribune—if the Koch brothers had followed through on the idea they were entertaining last spring to buy the Tribune, the LA Times, and other Tribune Company titles? Their arrival wasn't anticipated with anything approximating eagerness. A press release announcing an anti-Koch rally outside Tribune Tower declared that the Kochs "have funded right-wing think tanks and political campaigns and are now trying to purchase nine daily newspapers to further their libertarian anti-government, anti-union agenda."
The Newspaper Guild and its parent Communications Workers of America issued a statement that said: "Recently you've seen many petitions asking that the Koch brothers not be allowed to buy the Tribune Company's newspapers. We understand why the Kochs breed this distrust. They are active political proponents of harsh right-wing positions. We're also not certain that Tribune will listen to anything but money when the final decision is made."
Tribune columnist Rick Kogan didn't sound especially cheery when he told me that if the Kochs take over, "I don't know if anybody has the ideological balls to quit."
But in August a spokeswoman for Koch Industries announced that the brothers had lost interest in bidding for the newspapers because they no longer saw them as "economically viable." A heap of petrocoke was a sweeter investment than a newspaper.
When I read the articles that laid the pollution at the feet of the Kochs I idly wondered if the Tribune was trying to inoculate itself against any resurgence of interest on the brothers' part; or perhaps it was sending the Kochs the message, "We'll keep ripping you until you have to buy us to shut us up."
The Tribune was just doing its job, I supposed.
Would it be allowed to go on doing it if the biggest polluter in Chicago signed the paychecks? Would prudent editors send copy back to reporters with instructions to focus on the good jobs to be had spraying down petcoke to keep it from drifting and on scientists who stress the lack of conclusive proof that the "spongy residual concentrated with carbon, sulfur and heavy metals" does anything worse than make a few eyes water?
There are some things we can only hope we never find out, and this is one of them.