Toxic cloud of tar sands waste travels from Detroit to Canada
Though much has already been said of the tar sands oil industry, which is currently experiencing a boom and has spurred several high profile pipeline expansions across the US, the accumulation of the petroleum coke, commonly referred to as pet coke, along the Detroit riverfront went largely unnoticed until this week.
A dust cloud which flew over Detroit and into Windsor this week
was found to carry elevated traces of lead, sulfur, zinc and
vanadium, which is possibly cancer-causing in humans in prolonged
or elevated exposure, according to the International Agency for
Research on Cancer, a France-based organization. The US
Department of Health and Human Services and the US has not yet
classified whether vanadium is carcinogenic.
Last Saturday evening Windsor resident Randy Emerson managed to
capture a video of the thick black dust moving along the city’s
“Is that the pet coke?” Emerson, who captured the scene on his cellphone, asked his wife.
“Oh my God,” he concluded. “Yep — that’s pet coke.”
In May the New York Times profiled the Detroit dumping grounds of pet coke at an industrial site owned by Koch Carbon, a company controlled by wealthy industrialists Charles and David Koch, which sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon by-product overseas in China and India where it serves as a cheaper, dirtier alternative to coal. There is also strong demand for the by-product in Latin America, where it is used in cement-making kilns.
The refining process known as coking releases oil from tar sands, and leaves petroleum coke as its by-product. According to the Times Canada currently has 79.8 million tons of pet coke stockpiled, most of which is dumped into open pits and ponds in Alberta, and the rest is simply piled up.
Marathon Petroleum’s refining plant in Detroit is currently processing some 28,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil, and the increase of oil sands into the US, including transportation through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, will also bring more of the coking processing and waste product to the US.
Coke is an ingredient in steel making and the production of aluminium, though according to a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services cited by the Times high sulfur content in this particular type of pet coke make it virtually unusable for those purposes.
It was only last November that exports of pet coke produced by Canadian oil sands began to arrive at the site, and seemed to catch local government off guard.
“Here’s a little bit of Alberta,” said Brian Masse, a Windsor’s parliament members in May. “For those that thought they were immune from the oil sands and the consequences of them, we’re now seeing up front and center that we’re not.”
According to Lorne Stockman, the author behind a recent study on petroleum coke, the waste is “the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth.”
This week residents who spoke to Michigan Radio said they had found pet coke dust inside their homes, and videos of a large, black cloud moving across the Detroit River were posted on social media.
“It’s blowing onto the neighborhood,” said Nick Schroek, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “People are having to clean their homes regularly to deal with the dust. There’s parks nearby where children are playing that are being impacted by the fugitive dust blowing off the pile.”
Company representatives for Detroit Bulk Storage who handle the industrial site have said they were not aware that they required a permit to openly store pet coke in Detroit’s riverside, though they have been following “best practices” in handling the piles of pet coke waste.
Regardless, Detroit Bulk Storage is facing strong resistance from the city for a permit, and it has rejected suggestions that it cover the pet coke piles, instead relying on a sealing epoxy to prevent “fugitive dust” from escaping the site.
Detroit mayor Dave Bing said in a statement that he will require more information on the effects of pet coke.
“I want to make it clear that Detroit is not a dumping ground and residents of southwest Detroit deserve to be protected from industrial by-products,” Bing said.
Detroit Bulk announced earlier in July that it has stopped accepting new shipments of pet coke. Koch Carbon, which did not respond to a request for comment from the Toronto Star, has said that it plans to store the pet coke in another, as yet undetermined US state.