Stateside
3:24 pm
Wed May 22, 2013

A three-story pile of pet coke next to Detroit River, where will it go?

An eyesore has grown on the Detroit skyline.

It's a three-story pile of black petroleum coke that could cover an entire city block and it's the by-product of oil sands bitumen drilling in Alberta, Canada. 

The pile is most visible to Canadians in Windsor, Canada where the view of the pile isn't hidden by buildings. 

Ian Austen is the "New York Times" Canada correspondent who wrote a story on pet coke last week

The pet coke is a result of the refining process that oil sands bitumen go through, he said. Most of oil sands production is "run through a process called 'coking.'"

"People didn't pay much attention to it, because historically, it was done in Northern Alberta before it left Canada."

Austen said the piles of pet coke measured in hundreds of millions of tons, but because it was out of sight, it wasn't a problem. In Detroit, the pile is in plain sight, which is why it's gotten so much attention.

A Canadian company called Enbridge, which has been in the news several times lately, is now bringing oil sands bitumen directly into Michigan because the Marathon refinery purchased a coker. 

But why is it sitting next to the river?

"The refinery can't keep it forever. There's no issue with how the refinery is handling the material, but the refinery is selling it to a company controlled by the Koch brothers, who have in turn contracted Detroit Bulk to handle it."

Detroit Bulk Storage decided to store it, uncovered, on the banks of the Detroit river without a permit. 

"The way (Detroit Bulk) handled it doesn't meet any rules."

People on both sides of the river are concerned about the environmental impact of the pet coke pile. 

According to Austen, Brian Masse, a Windsor West member of the House of Parliament, asked the Canadian Government to contact the International Joint Commission. The Commission deals with cross-border disputes, and determined that the pile is Michigan's jurisdiction.

Where will the pile go?

"Often this stuff ends up going to China, India or Mexico where there aren't as tight of emission controls."

Though licenses to burn pet coke in the United States aren't available anymore, if you already have one, it's still allowed, Austen said. 

Pet coke is essentially carbon, Austen said, which is why, when it's burned, it's a big contributor to greenhouse gases.

"I don't think its as such toxic, but obviously having any sort of airborne pollutant is undesirable near the Great Lakes," Austen said.

-- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full story above.