From Motown to Coketown?

Is keeping the petroleum byproduct known as “petcoke” stored, in the open, on the bank of the Detroit River a wise decision?

Jun 12, 2013 at 12:00 am

McKenzie Duke is trying to recall exactly when she first began to notice the black dust.

She’d made the move from Midtown to southwest Detroit last August, renting a spacious loft apartment in what used to be a Hudson’s Department Store warehouse at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and West Fort Street.

Everything was fine at first. Duke especially liked being close to the Detroit River, which she could catch a glimpse of through the loft’s big windows.

Then, around the time winter turned to spring, the dust began to appear.

“It was the end of March,” she says. “Or maybe April.”

It was definitely a problem by the time May rolled around, when the weather had warmed and she was leaving the windows open. But they didn’t stay open for long.

“The dust was getting everywhere,” she recalls. “On the floors, the windowsills, everywhere.”

In the building’s parking garage, it was so thick, footprints would be left behind when people walked across it, she says. And it wasn’t just the amount that caused concern. It was the way it felt: gritty and greasy.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘My God, what’s going on?’” says Duke, an attorney.

Now she knows.

Because of the way her loft is situated, it’s difficult to see the source of the problem from her third-floor perch. But if you climb up three flights of stairs and step out onto the building’s flat roof, it is immediately obvious.

Just to the west, up against the river’s edge, is a massive mound of something called petroleum coke, or petcoke for short.

The small mountain of coal-black material, visible from the roof of Duke’s building, is courtesy of Marathon Petroleum’s refinery in southwest Detroit.

The petcoke is a byproduct that’s created when tar-like bitumen from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, is turned into gasoline and other fuels.

And there’s only going to be more of it. A lot more.

“The piles just keep on growing,” Duke says.

Also growing are the layers of controversy surrounding both it and the use of tar-sands bitumen in general.

There are strictly local concerns, ranging from seemingly mundane issues such as zoning ordinances and the permitting process, to questions about how the Detroit River and the health of area residents might be affected.

A statement from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — saying that petcoke, when inert, poses no health threat — has done little to assuage the fears of area residents such as Duke.

A host of local politicians — city council members, a state representative, and local congressmen — are all calling for some form of protective action.

Then there’s the big picture, which involves not only petcoke, but the entire process involved in clawing oil from the tar sands, which some critics have described as the “most environmentally destructive project on earth.”

THERE ARE ACTUALLY TWO separate piles of petcoke that have sprung up along the Detroit River. Billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, patriarch of the clan that owns the Ambassador Bridge, is linked, at least tangentially, to both.

“Both parcels of real property at issue are owned by the Maroun family corporate interests,” according to a May 31 report issued by the City Council’s Research & Analysis Division (RAD).

However, the two parcels — both of which are located near the Ambassador — are leased out: one to the Detroit Port Authority, the other to an outfit called Detroit Bulk Storage.

A spokesman for Marathon confirmed that the petcoke was produced at the company’s Detroit refinery but said it is no longer responsible for it since the material has been sold.

As for the company that is immediately responsible for the larger of the two piles, Detroit Bulk Storage, its spokesman says it is playing by the rules.

“Detroit Bulk Storage has been working in and with the city of Detroit for 13 years,” says spokesman Daniel Cherrin in an email responding to questions from Metro Times. “We have remained in regular contact with city officials and have submitted the required permit applications as we continue to follow the prescribed process. For example, before any petroleum coke was stored, we installed asphalt covering the loading area that slopes away from the water’s edge. The drains have also been capped and sealed. Again, we continue to work with the [state Department of Environmental Quality] and the city of Detroit to ensure all necessary safeguards are in place.”

The Detroit City Council sees things differently. Last week, the council passed a resolution saying that the “petcoke has been dumped on these properties without proper zoning clearances or necessary permits. It is also currently in violation of applicable height restrictions.”

Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown, whose Public Health and Safety Committee has been doing much of the heavy lifting on this issue, tells Metro Times that he thinks it would be appropriate for the city to “padlock” the entrance to the facility until the proper permits are obtained.

“We need to shut this down, and stop these piles from growing, until we have a full investigation of this issue,” Brown says.

Southwest Detroit resident Michelle Martinez, a former organizer for the Sierra Club, agrees.

“There was no due process whatsoever before they started dumping,” Martinez says. “A permit was never issued, so they are illegally dumping [the petcoke].”

One reason it’s important to adhere to the permitting process, says Martinez, is that it involves holding public hearings that allow residents to ask questions and raise concerns.

“These corporations treat southwest Detroit like it is the Wild West, doing whatever they want, with no discussion about how those actions impact the community,” she says.

As Brown points out, however, City Council doesn’t have authority to order any direct action. That’s up to Mayor Dave Bing and his administration. Asked to comment, a spokesman for the mayor said that the administration is still reviewing the council’s resolution and considering what action, if any, is appropriate.

One change that has taken place involves the spraying of what Schroeck describes as a type of “epoxy” intended to create a coating that helps keep dust from blowing off the piles.

That’s made a difference.

Duke, whose loft is within a few hundred yards of the larger storage site, says the amount of dust in general has decreased significantly. But it hasn’t been eliminated. She says that when the petcoke is loaded onto vessels to be taken away, clouds of dust still form. There’s also dust when the piles are leveled out so that more of the petcoke coming from the refinery can be added.

Suffering from asthma, she worries about possible health impacts. According to the report submitted to the council by the RAD, however, “other than relatively low concentrations of selenium and vanadium [both toxic heavy metals], RAD has not so far been made aware of serious concerns about toxicity of the petcoke. Lay references to its status as ‘dirty’ seem generally to refer to its high carbon content, which certainly becomes a problem when it is burned … but does not seem to be particularly harmful as long as the substance is inert. Further testing and monitoring of the precise physical and chemical composition of the petcoke will be necessary going forward to ensure that toxic pollution via airborne dust and water runoff … does not become a major problem in the future.”

The issue of the petcoke mounds has been steadily heating up since the news media began paying attention, beginning with a story in the Windsor Star on March 12.

Soon afterward, Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents southwest Detroit in the state House, marched onto the property to gather samples for testing. Results she obtained were similar to analysis provided by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Though relatively small, the amount of toxic material found in the samples is enough to raise concerns, says Tlaib, who last week introduced legislation that seeks to require petcoke be transported and stored inside closed structures and vehicles. Tlaib is also seeking to require a storm water discharge permit “to ensure that contamination is not being released into the Detroit River.”

Such legislation is necessary, it appears, because even if the petcoke is found to be dangerous to people and wildlife, there is probably little that can be done at this point to stop it from being stored along the river.

“It seems potentially problematic to completely ban petcoke storage, when hazardous waste processing and the production of petcoke and other potentially harmful or noxious processes and activities are allowed, and when there has been no official finding that storage of inert petcoke is even dangerous. Even if it were dangerous, storage of hazardous substances is permitted if they are handled properly (such as requiring indoor storage, covering the piles and/or limiting runoff.”

At the federal level, two Democratic U.S. Reps., John Conyers of Detroit and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in late May urging the agency to continue investigating the problem.

Approaching the problem on another front, Peters last week introduced the Petroleum Transparency and Public Health Study Act, which seek a federal investigation to determine if there are any health and environmental risks posed by the petcoke piled up along the Detroit River.

Politicians across the Detroit River have weighed in on the issue as well. In May, as leaders from the United States and Canada convened for the Council of the Great Lakes Governors Summit, Brian Masse noted:

“At this time very little is known about the potential impacts of petroleum coke on the environment and human health. What we do know is that it is the byproduct of an industrial process that seeks to remove the most environmentally destructive elements from oil-sands bitumen. We need to develop stronger understandings of the impacts that this material will have on our communities from its production, transportation, storage and end use. The Great Lakes is one of the world’s greatest treasures, and we owe it to ourselves, our children and future generations to continue to fight to improve the environmental conditions and erring on side of caution should be policy and practice.”

WHAT HAPPENS WITH THE petcoke as it sits, exposed to the elements, along the Detroit River is only part of the concern.

The reported purchaser of the material is Koch Carbon, a limited liability corporation that specializes in handling so-called “bulk commodities” such as sulfur, coal and petcoke; the company is controlled by brothers Charles and David Koch (pronounced “coke”), multibillionaires who have gained notoriety for their lavish funding of right-wing politicians and conservative nonprofit groups.

Where the petcoke goes once it is loaded onto barges hasn’t been disclosed. What is known is that it is often mixed with coal and burned to produce electricity.

“From January 2011 to September 2012, the United States exported over 8.6 million tons of petcoke to China, most of which was likely burnt in coal-fired plants,” according to a report produced earlier this year by the green-energy advocacy group Oilchange International. “Petcoke sells at a significant discount to coal, which is the primary reason Chinese coal plant operators are increasingly using it.”

Petcoke, when used as an energy-producing commodity, yields more than 50 percent more carbon dioxide (a key greenhouse gas contributing to global warming) than coal, ton for ton, according to the Oilchange International report.

But it’s not just China and other foreign countries where the use of petcoke is raising concerns among environmentalists and others concerned about climate change.

Because it has a higher sulfur content than coal and and produces more carbon dioxide, new power plants in the United States are prohibited from burning petcoke, says attorney Nick Schroeck, executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. However, some older electric plants are allowed to keep using it as part of their fuel mix. One of those facilities is the DTE coal-fired plant in Monroe.

In the Oilchange International report, specific mention is made of both the Detroit refinery and the Monroe power plant:

“Marathon’s Detroit refinery began production in November 2012 following a major refit specifically designed to process Canadian tar sands bitumen. The 1,720 tons of petcoke per day (600,000 tons per year) it is expected to yield is being eyed by one of the Midwest’s biggest coal plants, Detroit Edison’s … Monroe Plant in Michigan. Tests are currently under way to see how much petcoke can be blended at the plant.”

DTE spokeswoman Randi Berris confirms that the utility has been conducting tests using petcoke mixed with coal at the Monroe plant. One reason it’s being considered, she says, is that it’s an extremely inexpensive fuel, and using it will generate significant savings for DTE’s customers.

Berris adds that, calculated a different way — using the heat produced rather than strictly by tonnage — that petcoke’s carbon dioxide emissions are similar to that of coal’s.

Also, she points out, by burning petcoke in a facility with state-of-the-art air pollution-control equipment, burning petcoke is actually more environmentally friendly than sending the stuff to landfills.

Brad van Guilder, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, provided Metro Times with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permit, issued last year, that allows DTE Monroe to derive up to 10 percent of its fuel from petcoke, which works out to about 1 million tons a year, according to van Guilder.

Berris says that the utility hasn’t “come close” to reaching the 10 percent limit in its tests so far. As for that state-of-the-art equipment, it doesn’t include anything to limit carbon dioxide, which, despite its key role in global warming, remains unregulated in the United States.

Viewed one way, it can be argued that petcoke, since it is a byproduct from a process that’s producing other fuels, has no negative impact on the environment in terms of its production.

The energy used to refine bitumen, and the pollution created by the process, would occur regardless, because the primary goal is to turn the tar sands into gasoline or other similar fuels.

Even if you accept that argument, there’s good cause to worry about increased use of petcoke to generate electricity, critics say.

For one thing, argues Lorne Stockman, author of the Oilchange International report, use of the low-cost petcoke can help prolong the economic viability of coal-burning power plants, rather than spurring conversion to the cleaner-burning natural gas or the promotion of clean alternatives such as wind and solar power.

“Lower prices can … lead to further investment in coal-burning facilities,” writes Stockman, “which locks in coal demand for decades to come.”

“Petcoke derived from tar sands bitumen is clearly a significant new source of high-carbon fuel entering a market that is already over supplied from a climate limits perspective,” writes Stockman. “Its impact on climate change cannot be dismissed and must surely be included in any climate impact analysis of the tar sands.”

Which leads to another point: as much of a problem as petcoke is for the people in Detroit living near the piles of it, or the danger it possesses in terms of adding even more greenhouse gases to a planet that is clearly warming, the bigger threat has to be to the continued excavation of Alberta’s tar sands, and the overall environmental catastrophe critics say will occur if it is allowed to continue unabated.

Viewed that way, petcoke is more of a troublesome side effect than the primary environmental malady, which is the tar sands themselves.

THAT REALITY IS REFLECTED in the recent RAD report to city council, which notes that the issues surrounding those piles of petcoke involve a “much more complex series of environmental, economic and social questions than the current storage of large amounts of petcoke on these particular sites, and merely identifying the various potential risks, exposure pathways and regulatory bodies — federal, state, local and even international — that are responsible for monitoring each of them.”

That’s not to downplay the issue of petcoke, which by all accounts is going to become more prevalent as U.S. refineries such as the Detroit Marathon plant step of the processing of bitumen. So how the City Council and Bing administration chose to handle this issue now is of real significance going forward.

But it’s also about much more than just zoning and permits, runoff to the river and fugitive dust — or even well-placed concerns about issues of environmental justice.

In a sense, the petcoke being stored along the Detroit River is just one link in a chain that starts with the mining of bitumen in Canada.

Here’s what the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute had to say about the initial steps in the process that turns tar-sands bitumen into fuel:

“Most tar sands production takes place in vast open-pit mines, some as large as 150 square kilometers and as deep as 90 meters. Before strip-mining can begin, the boreal forest must be clear-cut, rivers and streams diverted, and wetlands drained. The overburden (the soil, rocks, and clay overlying the tar sands deposit) must be stripped away and stockpiled to reach the bitumen. Four tons of material is moved to produce every barrel of bitumen. At current production rates, with just three mines operating, enough material is moved every two days to fill a 60,000-seat stadium. But only a small fraction of the bitumen deposits is close enough to the surface to be strip-mined. Over 80 percent of the established tar sands reserves are deeper and must be extracted in situ (in place) by injecting high-pressure steam into the ground to soften the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface.

“Once separated from the sand, the bitumen is still a low-grade, heavy fossil fuel that must undergo an energy-intensive process to upgrade it into a synthetic crude oil more like conventional crude, either by adding hydrogen or removing carbon. Upgrading the bitumen usually occurs before it is shipped to refineries, but sometimes raw bitumen is diluted (e.g., with naphtha) and pipelined to a refinery where it is both upgraded and refined. In the United States about three-quarters of the oil is refined into transportation fuels.”

As debate continues over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas if approved and constructed, people in Michigan have firsthand experience of the consequences if something goes wrong in the part of the process involving pipelines.

A rupture in the Enbridge pipeline near outstate Marshall, in 2010, resulted in what’s described as the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history. Cleanup costs have reportedly topped $1 billion, and the job is far from over. Making everything both more difficult — and more expensive — is that bitumen is much heavier than conventional crude oil. Instead of floating on water, where it can be skimmed off, it sinks, becoming embedded in sediment.

The U.S. EPA has determined that intensive dredging will need to take place to clean oil from the Kalamazoo River.

That sort of disaster is part of the reason why the RAD report to City Council suggests keeping the “global overview” in mind when considering future policies regarding petcoke in southwest Detroit.

“In creating and ultimately burning this substance as a byproduct of tar sands exploitation,” the report cautions, “much greater risks of catastrophic damage are inherently at stake.

“Indeed, during the very same time period that this issue arose, the concentration of climate-altering carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reportedly exceeded 400 ppm [parts per million] for the first time in approximately 3 million years (a time period predating human presence on the planet). President Obama has been considering a permit for a major pipeline for tar sands from Canada to Louisiana; and even more acutely, tornadoes of extreme ferocity essentially destroyed a number of towns in the state of Oklahoma, further emphasizing the enormous potential costs and risks at stake.

“The petcoke piles on the riverbank in southwest Detroit, as disturbing as they seem in themselves, are in all reality merely symptomatic of much more dangerous, life-threatening problems associated with the industrial extraction, processing and combustion activities that created them.”

Back on the roof of her building, McKenzie Duke points out where the Detroit Riverwalk will be extended, west from the Renaissance Center — to within about 20 feet of the property where the petcoke is being stored.

“What kind of message does that send?” she asks.

The sun is shining and a cool wind blows, but the mound of black stretching along the river has her feeling apprehensive.

She looks at it and wonders aloud how it could be anything but harmful.

“I have a decision to make,” she says. “I have to decide whether I want to keep living here.”

Take our photo tour of the petcoke pile.

Curt Guyette is the news editor at Metro Times. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].