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Petcoke fight spreads throughout Great Lakes region

By Dave Battagello, The Windsor Star, April 15, 2014

Public and political pressure drove massive black piles of petroleum coke away from Detroit’s riverfront last summer.

But that only pushed the problem to communities further downriver and elsewhere around the Great Lakes where new battles against those handling the oil sands byproduct are being fought by residents and politicians.

“This is about what’s coming out of Alberta,” said Derek Coronado of the Citizens Environment Alliance in Windsor. “This whole issue is expansion of the tar sands and pipelines.

“You are going to see (petcoke) in more communities and further downstream in the Great Lakes. Just follow the refineries and pipelines.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently vowed to get petcoke out of his city as anger exploded among residents over blowing dust and potential health impacts from black piles on the Calumet River.

“Through the regulations we’re going to put in, it’s going to be very expensive to operate here and therefore they are going to choose to leave,” Emanuel told reporters in late February. “We’re going to make sure the ordinance puts up a ‘not wanted’ sign in the City of Chicago as it relates to petcoke.”

The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this year how Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wanted to require companies that store petcoke to fully enclose it and take measures to keep down blowing dust.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also filed lawsuits against KCBX Terminals — a company in Chicago controlled by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch — for violating air pollution laws, water quality and open dumping laws by storing petcoke, according to The Tribune.

The Koch brothers are regarded as the largest buyers and suppliers of petcoke in the U.S. and were also owners of the petcoke being stored in Detroit.

An executive with the company that piled petcoke in Detroit on behalf of the Koch brothers said they are looking for new ways to store the oil sands byproduct along the Detroit River.

Detroit Bulk Storage has applied to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a permit to use a riverfront location in Ecorse near River Rouge for petcoke storage. The proposed site sits across from Brighton Beach in between LaSalle’s Morton Drive and Sprucewood Avenue.

The company in the past used the site to store small amounts of petcoke, but not the type created from heavy crude oil out of Alberta, which recently started arriving by pipeline at a refinery in Detroit. Experts believe that petcoke contains more metals and possibly toxins.

“Nobody likes the fact of ruining the environment,” said Noel Frye, vice-president of Detroit Bulk. “But the crude is already coming down here, so this has to go somewhere. Currently, (what his company previously stored in Detroit) is going down to Toledo. I’m looking to capture it and keep it in this state, as long as we have the right parameters and guidelines in place.

“Right now, we are not storing it. People need to understand we stored petcoke for 10 years on that property. Now all of sudden people are coming out of the woodwork saying we have air quality issues.”

The local controversy began when petroleum coke started to be produced in large amounts at the nearby Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery in Detroit in late 2012 after a $2-billion upgrade was completed, allowing it for the first time to process heavy Alberta oil sands crude.

The troubles in Chicago started in similar fashion when a nearby BP refinery completed a $4.2-billion upgrade so it also could handle Alberta oil sands crude.

Petroleum coke gets filtered out from the crude to be resold as a cheaper replacement for coal. Although not officially listed as a toxic or hazardous product, the Alberta petcoke can contain heavy metals or sulphur, according to experts.

Most of the petcoke is shipped overseas by the Koch brothers to locations such as China, where it is burned as fuel. That requires the oil byproduct to be stored at waterfront ports throughout the Great Lakes so it is easier to load on ships.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano last week issued a letter calling on MDEQ to deny the permit to allow Detroit Bulk Storage to store petcoke piles in River Rouge, saying the “wind-blown particles would negatively impact the quality of life for residents and businesses.”

Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) — whose district includes residents in both Detroit and River Rouge — helped lead the fight against piling petcoke on the riverfront in Detroit and also opposes the company’s downriver site across from LaSalle.

“I’m really watching over there,” Tlaib said. “I’ve gone to council meetings and warned them this company has a tendency to illegally dump. It may not be couches or tires, but illegally dumping by not getting a variance for land use of storing petcoke.”

Activist Stephen Boyle, head of the Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands, said “a cultural awakening” is needed in the Great Lakes region to address the environmental and health concerns of petcoke and other petroleum products.

“We need more public oversight to what’s going on,” he said. “It’s sorely missing. Regulatory laws have to tighten up, specifically on state (environmental) limitations.

“But our reliance on petroleum products has become so pervasive in society, to stop has become outside anyone’s comprehension. I don’t know what else you can do other than educate people more about their dependence on fuel so they take steps to make a change.”

At the very least, open piles of petcoke next to Great Lakes waterways has to stop, Coronado said.

“We should expect what is done in other jurisdictions – and that’s keeping it stored in enclosed facilities or containers,” he said.

The problem is there is little historic data or testing on health impacts of petroleum coke on water or people, Coronado said.

“What they have basically said is that it’s no more toxic than other (fossil fuel or carbon) materials,” he said.”That’s hardly a vote of confidence.”

© Copyright (c) The Windsor Star