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Petcoke site in Detroit lacks proper zoning, permits

By Dave Battagello, The Windsor Star, May 02, 2013

The company storing black piles of petroleum coke on the Detroit River does not have all the required permits or proper zoning to keep the product on site.

Detroit Bulk Storage — which is storing the petcoke — has been told by the City of Detroit that there is outstanding paperwork required if the company wishes to store the oil sands byproduct on the riverfront site east of the Ambassador Bridge.

Andy Hartz, southeast Michigan district co-ordinator for Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said the city and Detroit Bulk Storage are discussing the need to get permits for the petcoke storage and “the operators are taking it seriously.”

A top environmental official with the City of Detroit did not return a message left Thursday by The Star.

Hartz indicated Detroit Bulk Storage has also been co-operating with requests from MDEQ to provide official site plans addressing storm water runoff and dust.

“We have received one of the two fugitive dust plans we requested and one of the storm water plans,” he said. “Both are being reviewed now.”

The company has said it will hand over the rest of the information within the next couple of days, ahead of an MDEQ deadline, Hartz said.

A couple of weeks ago, MDEQ issued a finding that the petcoke does not pose a “significant” health risk. Toxicity of the “green” petroleum coke either in the water or air is “very low,” the state regulator said.

The petcoke is on industrial and railway lands owned by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun. Detroit Bulk Storage has been leasing the land to store the coke before it is shipped to buyers in Canada and the U.S.

There is a second petcoke pile west of the bridge at Detroit Marine Terminal, a site where operational control also belongs to Moroun.

Petcoke started to be produced in much greater amounts at the nearby Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery in Detroit last fall after it completed a $2 billion upgrade which for the first time allowed it to process heavy Canadian crude oil brought in by pipeline from the Alberta oil sands.

Marathon goes beyond regulations in keeping the petcoke contained or covered, but once it leaves the refinery Detroit Bulk Storage has been leaving it on open piles on the riverfront.

MDEQ’s finding have provided no comfort to petcoke watchdogs on the Canadian side.

Derek Coronado of the Citizens Environment Alliance is among a group discussing options to deal with the issue.

“I don’t think it’s OK to have this waste product next to the site of a (Detroit River) remedial action program,” he said. Millions of dollars have been spent restoring the waterway.

Coronado questions the backward nature of how the petcoke started piling up on the Detroit shoreline with no permits issued and no assessment of potential environmental impacts beforehand.

It was only months after the black oil byproduct reached four stories high and several complaints from residents on both sides of the border that the MDEQ intervened.

“Their system should require permits before doing something like this and not after you have already started the process,” he said. “This indicates a broader systemic problem. This is important not only for this issue, but the Great Lakes in general.

University of Windsor senior researcher Doug Haffner, who studies the Great Lakes, agreed.

“It’s a carbon,” he said. “Nobody knew how it got there and its intended use. Now they are making a decision it’s OK to put it next to the river. That’s doing it backwards.

“Non-toxic doesn’t mean it’s not affecting habitats if it gets in the river. The best approach would have been to have a conversation before putting it beside the river. When it leaks into the river nobody has a data set on this and that’s what really bothers me.”

Haffner also is concerned MDEQ still doesn’t have a full grasp of the drainage around the petcoke pile.

“Most of the time, petcoke is covered (by companies) and this is not,” he said. “That strikes me as a strange situation. We have to act in a conservative nature to protect our aquatic resources, yet we start piling up these materials before knowing fully whether they are toxic or not.”

MP Brian Masse (NDP — Windsor West) has launched a petition and called on Ottawa to approve having the binational International Joint Commission investigate the petcoke issue.

“We are still waiting for a response,” he said of the federal government. “These guys seem to have no interest in dealing with environmental issues. We have made people aware and are getting feedback from all over the country on this.

“It needs a further look. There is not a lot of research on this product. When it gets called the dirtiest of dirty fuel, that’s very concerning. We will keep pushing on this.”

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