DETROIT (WWJ) — Mountains of petroleum coke — a byproduct of oil refining from tar sands in Alberta, Canada — have drawn public concern from politicians, environmental experts, community activists, business owners and residents in the southwest Detroit neighborhood where the black mounds have been deposited along the riverfront since late fall.
A spokesman for the company storing the pet coke, however, insists the storage procedures they have for the material make it safe.
Wayne State University law professor Nick Schroeck, who is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and 2007 alumnus, joined U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, a 1989 Wayne Law graduate, and others to speak out during a May 28 press conference on Fort Street, where the three-story-high pet coke mounds piled east and west of the Ambassador Bridge are clearly visible.
Schroeck is no stranger to media attention. He is frequently tapped by reporters, conservation groups and other law schools across the country as an expert on high-profile environmental law issues, including the controversy over oil and gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
The pet coke piles in Detroit raise a number of public health and environmental concerns. The dust that blows off the mounds is “pretty dramatic,” based on photos taken from the Canadian side of the river, Schroeck said. Also of concern is water runoff into the Detroit River from the uncovered stacks of pet coke, which are expected to be shipped to other countries. Pet coke can be burned with coal to produce energy, but the process is dirty, and U.S. EPA regulations prevent it from being used much in the United States.
Health studies and permitting processes — federal, state and local — for storing the pet coke seem to be lacking, Schroeck said during a flurry of recent interviews over the issue. And the issuance of government permits often include public hearings, which to date haven’t been held over the pet coke mounds, he said.
State officials with the Department of Environmental Quality told media that the piles of pet coke don’t pose a “significant” health risk. Schroeck isn’t convinced. Nor is Peters, who said he will introduce a bill to have the EPA conduct environmental and health studies, and he cited Delaware regulations that require pet coke to be covered during storage and transport. Schroeck said that at the very least, the mountains of pet coke are detrimental to the area’s growing economy and recent efforts to enhance the riverfront for recreation, and he noted that the southwest Detroit neighborhood already is subjected to heavy pollution.
Responded Detroit Bulk Storage Daniel Cherrin: “We understand the concerns the community has about their health and safety. We have similar concerns for the community and for our employees. We proactively work to minimize the dry bulk products we transfer to ships by spraying them regularly with water as well as an epoxy-like substance that minimize any fugitive dust.”
Cherrin said that last October, “before any pet coke was received or stored, the yard was asphalted in order to have (an) impermeable surface. The pad was specifically sloped away from the river so that any accumulated water would gather in one location so that it could be treated under the Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan. Detroit bulk has followed every rule and regulation as it relates to its storage and has found additional ways to enhance the safety and security around the perimeter. We will continue to work with the DEQ and city and welcome the opportunity to address the concerns of the community.”