Citizen groups flex some muscle in fight against Detroit's petroleum coke piles

Jun 26, 2013

Protesters block a truck carrying pet coke from docks along the Detroit River.
Protesters block a truck carrying pet coke from docks along the Detroit River.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

By now, you’ve probably heard of Detroit’s pet coke piles.

They’re a byproduct of refining Canadian tar sands oil at Detroit’s Marathon refinery, and the ashen piles are definitely an eyesore on the city’s riverfront. But how much of a danger does pet coke really pose?

So far, a definitive answer has proved elusive. But that hasn’t stopped a whole movement from springing up—and gaining some ground in the global fight against tar sands oil.

Just this week, a small group of protesters stopped a Mack truck carrying pet coke in its tracks, just a few hundred feet from its destination on the Detroit River—a place where freighters load up and ship out to places all over the world.

Standing in the middle of the street, McKenzie Duke read a list of demands from activists and residents. They’ve watched the pet coke piles grow and shift for months—at times, spanning a half-dozen city blocks and reaching several stories high.

 “Communities, health quality of life, environment and justice should come number one,” Duke began.

Duke has seen the impact of the pet coke piles in her home, just hundreds of feet away from the Detroit riverfront. She lives in an old warehouse building recently converted into spacious, airy lofts.

But when she started opening her windows this past spring, “I started seeing all this black dust coming in,” Duke says.

At first, she thought maybe it was just road dust—or maybe the wind bringing in some of the sand or gravel piled up at the nearby docks.

But, “This was not like that,” Duke says. “It really got my attention when I started trying to Swiffer it out… it’s not coming up, it’s not just dust. It’s gritty, grimy…and you actually have to clean it up.”

So, Duke started looking for a source.

You can’t see the pet coke piles from Duke’s apartment. But you can easily see them from the building’s roof. It’s a great spot to watch the goings-on at the dock—trucks hauling the stuff come in and dump it in open piles, conveyers moving it onto freighters.

Stephen Boyle is an activist with the group Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands. Pet coke is a byproduct of Canadian tar sands oil. The Marathon oil refinery in Detroit recently expanded to process more tar sands oil—hence, the sudden pet coke piles.

Boyle has spent hours up here and elsewhere nearby, documenting the flow of pet coke in and out of the docks. He takes pictures, organizes rallies and posts information online. He says it’s all an effort to expose what’s actually going on here.

“We’re pulling together so much evidence right now,” says Boyle, who firmly believes the pet coke should be treated as a toxic substance. “I don’t believe that the people that we’re facing will understand how much evidence we have against them.”

But environmental officials say pet coke is basically safe. The Environmental Protection Agency treats pet coke as a commodity. It can be burned as a low-grade alternative to coal, or used in some industrial processes. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has no specific process to regulate it.

Mostly, pet coke is lots and lots of carbon—which is pretty benign in itself. But when it’s burned, it becomes a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions.

And Detroit is now one more visible node in a carbon-intensive global energy web—one that starts with the tar sands oil flowing out of Alberta, Canada. Pipelines carry much of it into the US, where it’s refined and shipped all over the world. And now, it’s coming into Detroit.

 “As we see the changing flow of oil into Marathon, we’re going to increasingly see the impact of this on the neighborhood,” says Jeff Gearhart, a researcher with the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center.

Gearhart did a toxicological analysis of this pet coke, and found it’s fairly typical of the stuff—mostly carbon, but with a fair amount of sulfur and some trace amounts of toxic metals that could be an issue

 “You’re already in a very highly impacted community. So all of these incremental impacts are important, and I think have the potential to have real-world impacts on people’s health.”

But Gearhart and other environmentalists think that when it comes to pet coke’s impacts on health and the environment, there’s just a lot we don’t know yet. And that’s why he’s disturbed that unsheltered mountains of it can just show up along the riverfront.

To be fair, the pet coke’s handlers—a company called Detroit Bulk Storage—has taken measures to mitigate its impact. A spokesman says they’re pursuing a city permit for the piles, something they claim they didn’t know was required.  And the company will continue to shrink the piles, bringing them in accordance with zoning regulations.

But that’s part of the problem with pet coke—there’s no real regulatory framework for it yet, at least not in Michigan. Like its health and environmental impacts, there are still more questions than answers at this point.

But people who are directly affected—like McKenzie Duke—say they’re not waiting for officials to figure it out. They’re determined to fill in some of those gaps for themselves—and take back control of their community, and its environment.

“I’m glad that there are independent researchers [and] activist groups out there, because those are the people who have really been providing me with information,” Duke says. “So at least if I don’t have all the answers, I have some of the answers.”

As for that blockade Duke was a part of this week--well, the protesters succeeded in stopping pet coke shipments for the day. And they got some direct attention from Detroit Bulk Storage personnel, who’ve promised an ongoing dialogue about their concerns.

And Detroit Bulk Storage has now canceled plans to deal pet coke out of the nearby Nicholson Terminal, saying they’re going to focus instead on their core business of transporting steel.

In one sense, these are tiny victories in the larger fight over the multi-billion dollar tar sands industry.

But as Detroit’s pet coke have drawn international attention, they’ve become a focal point for pushback against tar sands oil—and have given that movement some new momentum.