Environment & Science
8:20 pm
Wed July 31, 2013

Will Detroit's pet coke piles finally get a permit?

After months of operating without one, the company responsible for Detroit’s petroleum coke piles went hunting for one Tuesday.

Detroit Bulk Storage representatives faced a city panel that will decide the issue. At times, panel members were highly skeptical of the company’s actions.

A company representative said they didn’t know they needed a permit to openly store pet coke along the Detroit River.

It’s stopped taking additional shipments of the substance — a byproduct of refining Canadian tar sands oil — until it gets one.

“Our understanding was that once we were moving toward compliance, we could continue our operations,” said Detroit Bulk Storage lawyer Terri Whitehead.

A Detroit Bulk Storage representative also insists the company is using “best practices” when it comes to handling the openly-stored piles safely.

But the company’s quest for a permit faces stiff resistance from some residents, community groups, and other opponents.

Many residents described finding pet coke dust inside their homes, and watching clouds of it move across and into the river.

“It’s blowing onto the neighborhood,” said Nick Schroek, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “People are having to clean their homes regularly to deal with the dust. There’s parks nearby where children are playing that are being impacted by the fugitive dust blowing off the pile.”

Detroit Bulk Storage is still working with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on a fugitive dust plan. So far, it’s resisted state guidelines for “zero visible emissions” from the site.

The company also rejected suggestions it should be required to cover the pet coke piles, saying the dust is adequately contained by a sealing epoxy.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy also voiced its objections to the operation.

“This operation undermines the work that the Conservancy has been doing for the last 10 years. Our work is diligent in trying to provide in trying to provide public access, improve healthy living, and encourage economic investment,” said spokesperson Karen Slaughter-DuPerry.

The Riverfront Conservancy wants to extend Detroit’s currently 3-mile Riverwalk another 2.5 miles, to just beyond the Ambassador Bridge. The pet coke piles sit directly in that path.

“This operation is in direct conflict with that progress,” said Slaughter-DuPerry.

Also voicing objections was lawyer Ron Patti, representing site-owner and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

Moroun’s company, Crown’s Real Estate, leases the land to Norfolk-Southern railroad, in an arrangement which apparently dates back more than a century. Norfolk Southern has sub-leased the land to Detroit Bulk Storage, which handles its transport on behalf of the pet coke’s owners, Koch Minerals.

“We do not support this type of storage,” said Patti, waving a pile of tickets Crown’s has received for operating without a permit. “We do not support any of the current uses on that land.”

It’s not clear when the city could decide on a permit. In the meantime, Michigan’s representatives in Congress are pushing for studies examining the health and environmental impacts of pet coke.