Skip to main content

Koppers disputes most recent environmental violations but plant records reveal two decades of run-ins with Illinois EPA

After the Illinois EPA sent them a lengthy violations notice last fall, Koppers executives began selling stock at an unprecedented rate. After MuckRock and the Cicero Independiente reported on those violations, the publicly-traded company hired a crisis communications firm to meet with elected officials and manage the community fallout.

Jesus J. Montero of the Cicero Independiente
Aerial of Koppers’ Coal Tar Plant on Stickney/ Cicero, Ill. border at Laramie Ave on November 25, 2023.

After the Illinois EPA sent them a lengthy violations notice last fall, Koppers executives began selling stock at an unprecedented rate. After MuckRock and the Cicero Independiente reported on those violations, the publicly-traded company hired a crisis communications firm to meet with elected officials and manage the community fallout.

This story was originally published by Cicero Independiente and MuckRock

Over the past decade, the Koppers coal tar plant, situated on the border of the town of Cicero and the village of Stickney, has been flagged for more than 50 violations of state environmental laws. The plant emits more of two cancer-linked chemicals than any other facility in Cook County, and ranks among the biggest regulated air polluters in the U.S. Last fall, when the company received its latest violation notice from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Koppers followed the same routine it had many times before:

The Pittsburgh-based chemicals company, which refines oils and tars for things like wood preservatives, refuted almost all of the state EPA’s 25 alleged violations. The company asked for a meeting with state regulators, to go over the alleged violations in detail. And, while not admitting fault, the company claimed that  changes to technology would help reduce air pollution for thousands of Cicero and Stickney residents and children who live, work and go to school within a half mile of the plant.

Want to receive stories like this in your inbox every week?

Sign up for our free newsletter.

Before 2020, when faced with similar violations of state and federal environmental laws, Koppers and the Illinois EPA would ultimately agree on the steps the company would take to address them, through a legal process called a “Compliance Commitment Agreement.” These agreements avoid costly fines and penalties by the state attorney general’s office.

But since 2020, the Illinois EPA has instead argued that the disagreements about violations were too serious for an out-of-court settlement, and referred the cases to prosecutors for tougher legal action. Those cases are still awaiting some kind of action by state prosecutors — a lawsuit, a settlement or, potentially, an injunction that could shut down facility operations deemed to represent a “substantial danger to the environment or to the public health.”

And this fall, within Koppers, something else happened. Several senior Koppers executives began to sell their company stock at a much higher rate than in previous years. In the span of just six weeks at the end of 2023, four Koppers executives, including Chief Executive Officer Leroy Ball, Chief Operating Officer James Sullivan and two officials in charge of environmental compliance, sold a combined 143,000 shares of company stock and options — more than all sales by insiders in the years of 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 combined, according to an analysis of company filings from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 

In total, the four executives sold roughly $6.3 million worth of Koppers company stock. Financial analysts who track so-called “insider” transactions by executives at publicly-traded companies say they usually flag stock sales worth more than $500,000 by any one executive.

The Illinois EPA has referred more than 3,500 civil enforcement cases to the state attorney general’s office since 2000. Unless an outside party requests a copy of the violation notices through an open-records request, like MuckRock and the Independiente did, the vast majority are never made public.

Koppers didn’t respond directly to questions about stock sales made by Koppers executives, the specifics of the alleged violations or possible legal enforcement by the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Two of the Koppers’ executives, Ball and Sullivan, underwent changes to their job titles and roles at the beginning of the year, and Koppers’ stock is trading near a 52-week high, above $50 a share. The company declined to comment on what it called “speculation or regulatory actions.”

In a statement, the company said it continues to invest in systems to protect the environment and cited the new “process automation project” that the company says will reduce or eliminate problems like the ones responsible for their most recent violations. 

The Illinois EPA said in a statement that it doesn’t discuss pending or future enforcement actions and declined to answer questions from the Independiente and MuckRock about the most recent disputed violations. Officials with the town of Cicero and village of Stickney didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

But government leaders in both Cicero and Stickney are well aware of the mounting legal troubles for Koppers, known as one of the region’s biggest employers, a longtime community “partner,” in the company’s words, and a significant source of tax revenue. After MuckRock and the Independiente published its first investigation about Koppers in December, the company enlisted a crisis communications firm to meet with local elected officials, answer questions about the story and create a community advisory panel to deal with the fallout.

Meeting minutes from the village of Stickney show that the “Koppers Community Advisory Panel” has twice met with about 20 local officials, including Stickney’s mayor, fire chief and public works director, at a YMCA in Berwyn, on Dec. 1 and Feb. 6, with plans to meet four times a year. 

No public notice of the meeting, as required under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, was provided beforehand. It’s unclear what community groups, if any, attended the meetings. The meetings included a “nice luncheon,” said Stickney’s clerk, Audrey McAdams, and she noted that Stickney “has had an exceptionally long relationship with Koppers, and it is a good rapport for us to have this level of input.”

The goal of these Koppers meetings, according to the village minutes, is to “improve communications between the company and the community.” Several elected and appointed officials in Cicero and Stickney and both Koppers and the public-relations firm organizing the meetings didn’t respond to repeated questions from the Independiente and MuckRock about its behind-the-scenes and closed-door response to the newsrooms’ coverage.

Twenty years of run-ins with environmental regulators

Last fall’s violations were only the most recent out of 10 separate notices the plant has received since 2000, according to documents MuckRock and the Independiente obtained through open-records requests to the Illinois EPA. Over the years, the EPA has accused the plant of spilling 1,000 pounds of o-xylene, a chemical used in paint, gasoline, paint thinners; dumping chemicals like toxic crude coke oven tar on their property; and an overall lack of monitoring and controls that air pollution equipment run correctly and efficiently.

One of the most oft-cited alleged environmental violations against Koppers is the company’s failure to operate a type of equipment called a thermal oxidizer at the right temperature. The technology uses extreme heat to break down the hazardous gasses produced in plant operations. It’s essentially a high temperature oven that “cooks” gasses until they burn into less harmful compounds.

Thermal oxidizers are the main way to control volatile organic compounds —  gasses that can cause short-term and chronic health problems — and these gasses have a strong odor. The problems that Koppers has encountered with its thermal oxidizers could be related to the strong and foul odors that residents of Cicero have complained about for generations, said Hannah Horowitz, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois. 

“If there’s an issue with a thermal oxidizer, then that would mean volatile organic compounds aren’t being oxidized completely to carbon dioxide and water, so these ‘intermediate compounds’ would potentially leak out,” Horowitz said.

Intermediate compounds, Horowitz said, can be gasses with strong, unique odors. 

The most-recent violations deal mostly with alleged equipment malfunctions that happened over the course of a year, from July 2022 to September 2023, including issues with the plant’s thermal oxidizer at its naphthalene distillation plant. 

Naphthalene, a chemical contained in fuels like petroleum and used in pesticides like moth balls, can cause headaches and dizziness. 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. 

The Illinois EPA claims that Koppers’ equipment frequently malfunctioned, increasing the levels of hazardous chemicals emitted into the air. Koppers failed to manage the equipment as required by its permit, often in ways that could have limited or controlled the pollution, the EPA found. In one violation, the EPA went as far to say that Koppers generally failed to follow “good-operating practices.”

In almost every response to the individual violations, Koppers wrote that they “respectfully disagreed.” 

Responding to the alleged uncontrolled emissions, Koppers wrote that their own calculations show they were under the levels required by the EPA and that they self-reported the malfunctions to the EPA on time. 

In addition to their disputes with the Illinois EPA, Koppers stressed that they have recently “invested in and commissioned several projects” to address safety concerns and processes that led to the malfunctions and excess pollution. The plant said that it will correct “faulty programming” at their naphthalene facility that led to the malfunctions, but public records obtained by MuckRock and the Independiente show that less than two weeks later, on Dec. 15, 2023, 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.

The attorney general’s office confirmed that it received referrals from the Illinois EPA related to Koppers that are currently under review by its Environmental Enforcement and Asbestos Litigation Division, which has civil enforcement authority. 

In an emailed response to questions about what those referrals could mean for Koppers, the Illinois EPA said that it couldn’t comment about specific details, but that it “has recovered millions of dollars from polluters and required companies to undertake environmental improvement projects in communities impacted by pollution around Illinois.” 

The lag time between referrals and a lawsuit or settlement isn’t surprising, and could mean that financial settlement is on the horizon, according to Rob Weinstock, an attorney and director of Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Center, a group in the university’s law clinic that litigates cases related to environment, climate and energy in Illinois.

“It’s reasonable to think that the attorney general’s office is trying to negotiate a resolution with the company so that the complaint and the settlement are filed on this at the same time,” Weinstock said.

In some settlements, Weinstock said that polluters have also agreed to fund environmental projects in the community affected by their pollution. 

Towns like Cicero face a unique challenge, at least compared to nearby Chicago neighborhoods. Even if progress is made on controlling pollution in Chicago, any enforcement in Cicero or Stickney is in the hands of the Illinois EPA and local government agencies.  

“Cicero, like West Chicago, like Joliet, like any number of communities outside of Chicago, fits in this strange place where they are relying on the state agency, and the local government often either lacks the will or the resources [to act],” Weinstock said.

Closed-door meetings, solicitations for a class-action lawsuit, state legislation — and a threat

Cicero, Ill., residential homes on November 25, 2023. Jesus J. Montero of the Cicero Independiente

The Cicero Independiente and MuckRock have been reporting on air quality in Cicero and pollution from Koppers and other companies as part of our project, “The Air We Breathe.” Last summer, our newsrooms purchased three PurpleAir sensors and helped install them on volunteers’ homes to collect our own air quality data. Those sensors found that Cicero’s air quality is much worse than surrounding Cook County neighborhoods and worse than what the federal EPA and pilot programs run by the city and Microsoft have routinely reported.

After hearing from several residents who were concerned about pollution coming from Koppers, we requested public records and data about the plant’s compliance record with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. We discovered that not only did Koppers emit more of two cancer-linked chemicals than any other facility in Cook County — the plant had also just received a lengthy list of violations for not correctly controlling the release of these pollutants. 

When the Independiente’s journalists took the findings to a town board meeting, Cicero’s town board president, Larry Dominick, criticized the journalists, calling them “jerks.” He then threatened to bar their reporters from speaking during public meetings, a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, experts said.

Aside from a general statement pledging it would keep surrounding communities like Cicero and Stickney “safe places to live and work,” Koppers has said little publicly about the Illinois EPA violations notice. But the company hired a crisis communications firm, Mary Ann Green Communications, which arranged meetings with Cicero town officials and proposed a “community advisory panel” to answer questions about the investigation’s findings. Details of those meetings or the community panel haven’t been made public.

The surrounding community responded, too. 

A personal-injury law firm in Indiana, Marshall P. Whalley and Associates, began distributing letters to residents in Cicero, offering a free consultation with the firm to potentially pursue a class-action lawsuit against Koppers, with another law firm that specializes in environmental litigation.

A Crown Point, Indiana, law firm, Marshall P. Whalley and Associates, P.C., solicitation letter dated Jan. 9, 2024, provides information about possible litigation due to the odors in proximity to Koppers’ Coal Tar Facility and surrounding Cicero residents. Courtesy of Cicero resident

Illinois State Sen. Javier Cervantes, who represents the first district which includes Cicero and the Koppers plant, said he would support a series of environmental-justice bills in the state General Assembly this year, pointing specifically to a Senate bill that would almost double the maximum possible fine that environmental polluters face. 

“This is not OK and I’m fully aware. We need change,” said Cervantes, who was born with a cleft lip that, he said, was caused due to his mother’s exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy. “We have to figure out a way where we hold [the Koppers plant] accountable. They have to be responsible to the community.”

And a Cicero citizens’ group, Corazon Community Services, urged Cicero town leaders and the state EPA to regularly hold meetings with area residents about the region’s poor air quality. “There should be constant pressure and demands against Koppers to address the environmental damage it has caused the community for years,” the group said in a statement.

Neither the Illinois EPA nor Koppers would say when, or if, they met to discuss the latest alleged environmental violations. As a result, one of the only ways to find out what happened will be to submit an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request for emails and memos.