Watch the video, courtesy of the Windsor Star:
The petroleum coke is a high-carbon, high-sulfur byproduct of Canadian tar sands that are shipped from Alberta to Detroit to be refined. The uncovered black pile began building up along the river this year and drew outrage from residents of Detroit and nearby Windsor, Ontario as it grew to over three stories high and a block long.
The pet-coke was produced by Marathon Refinery but is owned by Koch Carbon which is controlled by Charles and David Koch — billionaire industrialists and major backers of a host of ultra-conservative efforts, including several aimed at obstructing action on climate change and impeding progress on clean energy.
According to WXYZ-Detroit, “Detroit Bulk Storage has been receiving shipments of the oil by-product and storing them near the Detroit River but a recent investigation by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says the company broke the law by not getting a permit first.”
The company requested a permit to store the product at a public hearing on Wednesday.
Shortly after the pile appeared, Detroit residents began raising concerns about the potential impacts the growing mountain of tar sands byproduct might be having on their quality of life. According to the Detroit Free Press, “State Department of Environmental Quality regulators and Detroit city officials appeared to be caught flat-footed by the piles, and scrambled this spring to assess whether they harmed nearby air and water quality only after media reports and complaints from residents and local lawmakers.”
Although the DEQ has said the pet-coke “has low toxicity as it sits there in a pile,” citizens and local elected officials have raised serious concerns about the dust invading their air and water supplies and demanded that the long-term effects of the substance be studied.
Detroit resident Serene Arena told the Free Press that thick, black dust began appearing in her apartment this spring. Tests confirmed that the dust contained petroleum coke and “includes the metal vanadium, which is believed to cause cancer in high concentrations and prolonged exposures.”
Last month, protesters blocked the entrance to the dock where the pet-coke was being dumped. Detroiter Andre Glen, who lives in an apartment building nearby, told CBS Detroit that “he and his neighbors have been having respiratory problems due to thick black dust in the air.”
Congressman Gary Peters, whose district includes the waterfront where the pet-coke has been building up, told the Guardian earlier this year, “This is dirtier than the dirtiest fuel.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Peters expressed his outrage at the latest incident and demanded a federal study into the impacts of the product on public health and the environment. “We’ve been told that the pet coke dust issue is being contained, but here is firsthand evidence to the contrary. I am concerned and alarmed about repeated reports of pet coke blowing off the piles and into homes and businesses.”
Last year, the Marathon Refinery underwent a $2 billion expansion to allow for increased processing of Canadian tar sands. And as production expands, the mountain of pet-coke will continue to grow.
Not only does petroleum coke pose a serious risk to nearby air and water supplies, but the product can also be used as a cheaper — and even dirtier — alternative to coal. Since most power plants in the U.S. and Canada won’t burn pet-coke due to the high level of greenhouse gas emissions, the companies often ship the waste product to countries with looser emissions restrictions, such as China and India.
In June, the New York Times reported that a Canadian power plant, owned by Nova Scotia Power, had begun burning the pet-coke from Detroit “because it is cheaper than natural gas.”
The dangers of petroleum coke — both as a waste product gathering in communities and as an extremely dirty energy source — will only be compounded as increasing amounts of Canadian tar sands are brought into the U.S. to be refined. If, for example, the Obama administration approves the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and facilitates the transport of more tar sands into the country, it will exponentially increase the amount of pet-coke building up around the refineries — leaving cities like Detroit wondering what to do with the mess it leaves behind.