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Major US polluter operates 'essentially illegal site' in Detroit - interview

By Crystal Park, radio - The Voice of Russia, August 7, 2013

Koch Industries, the private company of the billionaire Koch brothers, is one of the primary sources of carbon pollution in the United States. However, the actual emissions profile of the diversified giant, with its oil and gas, chemicals, cattle, forestry, and synthetics holdings, is unknown, because of the lack of mandatory carbon reporting in the United States. Derek Coronado, coordinator for Citizens Environment Alliance, talked with the Voice of Russia about the 'infamous brothers' and environmental and health problems their company causes.

Are you in Detroit by any chance?

No, I’m in Windsor which is on the Detroit River, right across from Detroit.

Describe to us exactly how big are we talking?

The piles themselves got up to about 4 stores high and, in terms of length, maybe about 300 to 400 feet along the Detroit River.

And how long has the smoke been going up into the sky?

Marathon Refinery in Detroit just completed its upgrade to refine heavy oil. And once they started receiving the bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta and refine it, that’s when the byproduct – the pet coke – started to be piled along the river.

So, probably since November last year up until the end of July is when residents on both sides of the border have been exposed to the pet coke. And of course, it’s been stored out in the open which means it is travelling all over the place.

What exactly is pet coke?

It is the byproduct of the refining process of heavy crude. There is a big market for its use as well. It is frequently shipped all over the place. One of the big users of pet coke is electricity operations. In some instances it is cheaper to use it than coal itself.

So, while it is waiting to be shipped out, in Detroit it was stored along the shoreline out in the open. It is not a good idea to be doing that and certainly they didn’t have any permits, not the Marathon itself but the Detroit Bulk Terminal – the facility that was storing it on the water front.

But apparently they have requested a permit since then?

Yes, they have. Ironically this process has been going on so long now, that they’ve actually stopped receiving pet coke. They didn’t face any penalties whatsoever the whole time they were operating that essentially illegal site.

Beyond that, the State of Michigan required fugitive dust emission plans and storm water runoff plans, neither of which as you might expect the facility had. The state was moving with the operator to develop those plans. But again, no penalties attached for not having those plans in place originally.

What are some of the environmental and health concerns about this black smoke?

The particular matter from the pet coke piles floating around was that it was getting all over people’s properties. Of course I can wash my car, my house, my plants and my dog but, obviously, I’m breathing this stuff as well.

So, the issue toxicity is arguable given that the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed that pet coke is not toxic. But the data that was supplied to the EPA from the American Petroleum Institute which is the premier lobby organization for the oil industry in the States and that assessment is a little bit dubious.

What exactly the next step is, in terms of containing these piles?

Detroit Bulk Terminal just recently announced that the operator of the site is not interested in having their pet coke stored there anymore. They’ve moved it out of the state and they are now piling it somewhere in Ohio. But they are still pursuing permits to use that site in the future as storage facility for pet coke.

We are glad to see it’s gone at the moment, but the next step, I think a lot of people in Detroit and on the other side of the border are looking to make sure that there is no permit given, for open storage at least, of this material. If there is any storage in the future, it needs to be in an enclosed facility for sure.

The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline that Pres Obama is hoping to get through, how is that going to affect this whole environmental issue with pet coke? That Keystone Pipeline is going to increase the amount of pet coke, wouldn’t you say?

Absolutely! All the operators that are now in the Alberta tar sands are looking to increase production as much as they can. Refining process results in the production of pet coke and that material of course will then be stored either out in the open or whatever the local rules are to being sold and shipped, and then burned in some facility. All along the process – from exploration to drilling, to shipping, to refining and then burning it – there are pollution exposures and environmental impacts all of which are negative.

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