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
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.
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