Koch Carbon piling up mountains of potentially toxic petroleum coke on banks of the Detroit River

What could possibly go wrong?


[Photo by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]

On the banks of the Detroit River, giant three-story tall mountains of black rock have been accumulating, quickly and quietly enough to take a lot of Detroiters and neighboring Canadians by surprise. The piles are petroleum coke or “pet coke”, a by-product of the processing of tar sands oil from Canada. A newly upgraded Marathon Petroleum refinery in Detroit now allows them to process the tar sands oil, producing copious amounts of the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste product.

A recent New York Times article shows that Michiganders and Canadians alike are concerned by the use of land directly on the Detroit River to store the potentially hazardous pet coke.

Detroit’s ever-growing black mountain is the unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.

And no one knows quite what to do about it, except Koch Carbon, which owns it.

The company is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who back a number of conservative and libertarian causes including activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change. The company sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste, usually overseas, where it is burned as fuel.

The coke comes from a refinery alongside the river owned by Marathon Petroleum, which has been there since 1930. But it began refining exports from the Canadian oil sands — and producing the waste that is sold to Koch — only in November.

“What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground,” said Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan state representative for that part of Detroit. “Nobody knew this was going to happen.” Almost 56 percent of Canada’s oil production is from the petroleum-soaked oil sands of northern Alberta, more than 2,000 miles north. {…}

Residents on both sides of the Detroit River are concerned that the coke mountain is both an environmental threat and an eyesore.

“Here’s a little bit of Alberta,” said Brian Masse, one of Windsor’s Parliament members. “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.”

Mr. Masse wants the International Joint Commission, the bilateral agency that governs the Great Lakes, to investigate the pile. Michigan’s state environmental regulatory agency has submitted a formal request to Detroit Bulk Storage, the company holding the material for Koch Carbon, to change its storage methods.>b? Michigan politicians and environmental groups have also joined cause with Windsor residents. Paul Baltzer, a spokesman for Koch’s parent company, Koch Companies Public Sector, did not respond to questions about its storage or the ultimate destination of the petroleum coke.

Marathon Petroleum is running away from having to answer questions, claiming that they no longer own the pet coke so it’s not their responsibility.

Shane Pochard, a spokesman for Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon, said the pet coke stored along the Detroit River is no longer owned by Marathon, so the company cannot comment on its storage. However, he said, if stored properly, pet coke poses no environmental concerns.

Michael Samhat, president of Crown Enterprises, a Moroun family real estate company, said the Moroun family does not benefit financially from having the pet coke on its property because the land is leased to Norfolk Southern, but “as the landowner, we’re concerned.”

There appears to be some confusion about who actually owns the pet coke piles. The New York Times piece, the Detroit News, and WXYZ News say it’s owned by Koch Carbon, LLC, a subsidiary of Kock Minerals, LLC. The Detroit Free Press piece says it’s owned by Detroit Bulk Storage, based in River Rouge.

The waste product is being sold to foreign countries to be burned for energy when it will release its carbon, nitrogren and sulfur pollutants into the atmosphere. Pet coke itself isn’t particularly harmful as it sits there. However, a bigger issue is the leaching of the concentrated contaminants into the Detroit River.

The Detroit Free Press spoke to a fuel scientist about it:

André Boehman, fuel scientist and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, said pet coke comes from processing of dense fractions of crude oil, called heavy oil, or from shale or tar sands.

“You tend to concentrate the undesirable constituents,” he said. “It has higher sulfur and higher metals than the original oil.”

He said heavy oil tends to be more concentrated in sulfur and heavy metals, but that refiners still can get fuel out of it if they use a high-pressure machine called a coker. It is a common treatment for oil that comes from Canada or Venezuela.

He said pet coke is similar to and mostly blended with coal to be used in creating energy but that other, higher-quality pet coke can be used to make electrodes. He said there are no expected issues with pet coke creating fumes. It is inert, he said.

With regards to storage, he said, one of the biggest concerns is what might happen if rain with enough acidity were to hit the pet coke piles. The acid could leach the metals and sulfur, and contaminated water could flow into the Detroit River.

“This stuff should be relatively safe to sit there, provided there isn’t an opportunity for acidic rains to leach,” he said. “Sitting next to the river, where is this runoff going to go?” he said.

Where it would go is into the Detroit River, a water source for much of the area. The potential for rain “with high enough acidity” to leach contaminants into the river is not insignificant. pH is a measurement of the acidity of water and aqueous materials. Anything below a pH of 7 is acidic. Normal rain is mildly acidic with a pH of 5.6. However, as you can see from this map, the pH of rain in Michigan is much more acidic than that, averaging around 4.9:


[Source: National Atmospheric Deposition Program (pdf)]

But the Koch family doesn’t worry about such things. They don’t have to concern themselves with how Detroiters and everyone else who uses the Detroit River for water, food and recreation are impacted because they don’t live here. They simply profit from the use of our resources without having to contend with bothersome things like polluted waterways. It’s one more example of corporatists and their puppet lawmakers publicizing risks, including evironmental risks, and privatizing profits.

I’m very glad to see that State Representative Rashida Tlaib is taking an active role in this issue. She has gathered samples for testing and is joining with concerned citizens from the Detroit area and environmentalists from both the USA and Canada to monitor the situation and demand accountability. As she told the Detroit News, ”
“It’s just common sense not to put it on the riverfront.”

Unfortunately, given the track record of the Republicans in the state legislature and their dependence on corporate funding from groups like or controlled by the Koch brothers, her ability to actually achieve accountability may be limited.

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  • Maria

    It boggles the mind that the Koch Brothers would just leave their “goods” out there in the open for possibly other people to start pilfering and selling to god knows who. It does seem water contamination is not a concern, for them anyway, although others might notice (!) but surely, leaving material out there that could potentially get robbed and who would stop them is not a very smart business move. Even if they brothers think it’s a great idea to not pay the cost to transport and store even a mile inland until they get to sell it, it’s probably not the best idea to just leave stuff lying around, unsecured.

  • caltennisguy

    Was any of this reported in the Detroit News or Detroit Free Press. Let me know if they did because I can’t find this very distrubing story.

    • http://eclectablog.com Eclectablog

      Yes. I have links to pieces from both newspapers in the piece, in fact.

  • potter12

    Glad the NYTimes ran this piece, but I’m not sure what took them so long. It’s a couple months old now. http://grangehallpress.com/Enbridgeblog/2013/03/11/more-gunk-in-michigan-rivers/

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