The material, a byproduct of petroleum coke manufacturing, is being shipped from a BP plant to the storage sites just south of the Chicago Skyway bridge.
Residents told the Chicago Tribune that black smoke and dust often blows off the piles. They are lobbying for stronger laws that would require the piles to be enclosed, the newspaper said.
"You can't have a picnic outside because you are going to get a mouthful of black dust," said Lilly Martin, who lives near one of the coke piles. "It's so bad we have to power-wash the house every week to wash it off."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Attorney General said they are investigating and reviewing storage permits for the piles.
BP is expected to complete work this year on a project that will more than triple its production of petroleum coke, the Tribune said.
KCBX, a company owned by industrialists Charles and David Koch, operate the storage sites and are responsible for compliance with environmental laws.
The company said it is complying with all regulations in Chicago.
In a letter to the EPA, the company said that it is not feasible to cover up the piles.
Air quality is already a problem in the neighborhood, as studies show that the area has the state's highest toxic metal and sulfate concentration, which cause cause heart disease and asthma attacks.
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