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Growing outrage, and calls for action on Detroit pet coke piles

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Residents and business owners in Detroit are worried--and outraged--about petroleum coke piles growing on the city’s riverfront.

Here's what the piles look like from Fort Street in Southwest Detroit:

That byproduct of the oil refining process is being dumped in massive piles—now several blocks long and building stories high--along the Detroit River. It’s stored in the open, and wasn’t approved through any permitting process.

This pet coke is the result of processing Alberta tar sands oil at Detroit’s Marathon oil refinery. That facility recently expanded to process more of the Canadian oil.

Detroit Congressman Gary Peters calls the situation “unacceptable.” He plans to introduce federal legislation to conduct “a complete health study” of pet coke—and how it could play into the larger debate over tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We 'd better understand the health impacts of it,” Peters says. “We'd better understand how we store this properly, and understand the damage this can do to the environment…not just in the storage, but when you burn this pet coke.”

More pet coke is likely to pile up at sites around the country as the US imports more tar sands oil. And in Michigan at least, it’s not clear there’s any type of permitting to regulate this industrial byproduct that’s technically a commodity.

The pet coke piles sit along the river awaiting export, where it’s being handled by a company called Detroit Bulk Storage. As it’s moved on board ships--most likely to developing countries to be burned as a low-grade fuel—it’s the property of Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries.

"This stuff is dirtier than the dirtiest coal."

But burning pet coke produces more greenhouse gas emissions than regular coal. “This stuff is dirtier than the dirtiest coal,” Peters says.

In its inert form, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has said the pet coke is basically safe.MDEQ are still awaiting plans to manage possible fugitive dust from the site, and make sure there’s a plan to handle stormwater runoff.

But those reassurances don’t do much for the people who live and work in southwest Detroit—a community already heavily burdened by pollution.

Deb Sumner says for community members like her, it’s more than just an eyesore.

“This product is not just seeing the black mountains,” Sumner says. “It’s coming through the community, coming through the neighborhoods [on its way to the dumping site.]”

Sumner calls the pet coke piles “criminal,” and suggests neighbors may need to go to court to make it stop—though it’s not clear any laws have been broken.

Still, residents and activists are outraged that the riverfront is being treated like a dumping ground.

“This is part of a life cycle of really dirty, awful fuels,” says Nick Schroeck, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit.

“While we’re concerned about the dust, the particulate matter, and the runoff into the river today…the question is, what will happen long term?” Schroeck asks, adding, “Without a public permitting process…we don’t really know.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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