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?
Published: June 12, 2013
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.
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