Pet Coke Pollutes Air, Water and Land on City’s Riverfront; Detroiters Say No

Detroit, MI — Can the nation’s third most polluted zip code get any dirtier? Apparently. There is a growing mountain of waste from Canadian tar sands on the Detroit riverfront so toxic and obnoxious it is causing neighbors, environmentalists and city council to organize against the stockpiling and call for justice.

Petroleum coke (pet coke) is a by-product of the processing of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, and it is highly toxic. “Canadian tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with Bitumen, contains twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history,” according to NASA scientist James Hansen.

Pipelines bring it to Detroit’s downriver Marathon Refinery. Marathon gets the maximum refined oil for gasoline and other fuels that it can before selling the remaining waste. The billionaire Koch brothers, operating as Koch Minerals LLC, buy it and store it on the Detroit riverfront on land rented from billionaire Mattie Maroun. It is then loaded on ships and transported to countries like China and India that will burn it.

Pet coke is like coal, only far more toxic, containing a number of poisonous elements including lead. The dust from the uncovered piles covers everything inside apartments in nearby lofts; the run-off into the river is caught in photos by Windsor residents; and the stench and taste coat the throats of the fishermen casting off at the bottom of 12th Street.

Complaints forced the offending storage yards to spray the piles with an epoxy covering, Occupy Detroit activist Stephen Boyle said. However, when bulldozers begin breaking through the coating to load ships, the dust flies.

Detroiters have had enough. Residents and city council are saying no, no more, not here!

A group of residents and activists organized as the Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands (D-CATS) met June 15 in Dearborn to educate about and organize against the hazard.

Activist Michelle Martinez, Tia Lebherz of Food and Water Watch and Theresa Landrum, a 48217 activist, addressed pollution issues stemming from the pet coke piles.

“We have to educate and empower ourselves,” Landrum said. “The agencies tell us they are overwhelmed.”

Landrum counted the multiple cases of cancer afflicting her family and neighbors in her downriver neighborhood. She warned that this is not just a Detroit fight but a national one.

The Keystone XL pipeline, that to date President Barack Obama has blocked, is part of the growing system of pipelines threatening the spread of tar sands while endangering the land and water along their transverse.

She ticked off a list of problems connected to the pet coke piles on the river. “The run-off into the river pollutes water, which goes to the sewer department that then processes the water you drink. The sewer department can’t get all the impurities out,” Landrum said. There is no air monitor “within a mile of the piles.”

Industries such as the asphalt companies that pave roads have created a demand for the pet coke, she said. According to Landrum, the Marathon Oil Refinery “went from producing sweet oil to dirty tar sands oil” and linked the April 27 explosion at Marathon that led to the evacuation of a large area of Melvindale to the tar sands refining process.

From significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions to government’s failure to monitor specifics such as sulfur are all environmental threats that need stricter laws, Landrum said.

“Water is a human right,” said Lebherz, adding that the riverfront pet coke threatens water on a number of levels. Noting the Detroit River is the gateway to the Great Lakes, she said using pet coke is “scraping the bottom of the barrel for resources.”

It all points to a bigger issue: our continued dependence on fossil fuels, she warned.

Martinez said that nonprofit organizations are limited in what they do, and “our rights are disappearing.”

“We have no power, no access to accountability,” Matrtinez said pointing to government under emergency management.

It was a point Councilmember JoAnn Watson made when seeking a council vote June 17 to sue to block the pet coke stockpiling. Without EM approval, council’s ability to stop the piles is nonexistent.

Steve Conn, BAMN, urged people to “combine collectively for direct action. The moment for direct action is now.”

D-CATS is planning a People and Pet Coke March June 23 at 3 p.m. from Clark Park to the docks. The public is urged to join.

DTE has admitted in published reports that it burns the pet coal at the Monroe plant, but the amount burned is limited by the Department of Environmental Quality.