ASKED & ANSWERED: Nick Schroeck on petroleum coke

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

A press conference including Rep. Gary Peters, community activists, and neighborhood business people was held on May 28 near Fort Street in Detroit adjacent to petroleum coke mounds that have grown in recent months near the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit River. The giant mounds are a by-product of tar sands oil refining used as a cheap source of fuel and have attracted attention in both the United States and Canada. Wayne State University Law School Professor Nick Schroeck is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and a 2007 alumnus of the school and was a participant in the press conference.

Thorpe: What are the possible environmental effects of petroleum coke on nearby air and water?

Schroeck: We know that the petroleum coke contains a variety of toxic metals including selenium and vanadium. The Michigan DEQ claims that the petcoke piles do not pose a significant health threat, but that determination was based on modeling and not actual environmental monitoring or public health monitoring. The petcoke piles are stored in the open air adjacent to the Detroit River posing a threat to the river from both water runoff and the blowing of dust into the river. There are no monitors in place to adequately measure fine particulate matter in the air from the petcoke dust. The dust is created by wind, but also by the trucks moving and dropping off the petcoke, machinery moving the piles, and loading the petcoke on to ships by conveyor belts. There are immediate concerns for the health of the people living near the piles who are breathing in the petcoke dust, and longer term concerns about contamination of the storage site near the river, contamination to the river itself from runoff, and potential impacts to fish and to public health from fish consumption.

Thorpe: There doesn't appear to be a state or local permit process for this sort of waste accumulation. What sort of requirements would you like to see in such a process?

Schroeck: There should be a public permitting process for the storage of petroleum coke, regardless of the location. There was no public notice and no opportunity for public comment prior to the petcoke piles appearing along the river. The first requirement should be a public process. Second, the Michigan DEQ should develop rules for the permitting of petcoke storage. As the Marathon refinery begins to process even more tar sands oil from Alberta the petcoke storage problem will remain for the foreseeable future. At a minimum petcoke piles should be covered and stored in such a manner that fugitive dust is contained on site and cannot impact the public or the environment. Storage sites should also be required to prevent any potential runoff to surface waters either directly or through storm drains. The regulations should include the trucking and loading of the material onto ships to prevent the impacts from petcoke dust and fine particulate matter.

Thorpe: DEQ regulators in Lansing are saying that the toxicity of the material is "very low." Do you know what they're basing that conclusion upon?

Schroeck: The DEQ is basing that statement on the sampling they have done of the petcoke material. DEQ has done modeling to look at potential impacts, but not any environmental monitoring that I am aware of. There is also a question of scale here: while the amounts of heavy metals and other toxics in a lump of petcoke may be small, we are dealing with mountains of petcoke three stories high. That is a lot of toxic material stored in the open. Further, this area of Detroit is already overburdened with pollution from the Marathon refinery, steel mills, and heavy industry. The DEQ has failed to consider the potential cumulative impacts from the petcoke on top of all the other pollution in the community.

Thorpe: Other states are moving to require safety measures to protect the environment and citizens from possible health hazards related to petcoke. Tell us about that.

Schroeck: Other states have required screening to block the movement of fugitive dust and some states, like Delaware, require petcoke to be stored in a covered location. Congressman Peters has also called for national legislation dealing with petcoke storage and to study the potential health impacts. The Michigan DEQ has required more environmental protection at other petcoke storage sites. For instance, the DTE Monroe coal plant, which is permitted to potentially burn over 900,000 tons of petcoke a month, is required to use screening, partial enclosures, and wet dust suppression. The DTE Monroe permit was written by the Michigan DEQ. It is unclear why they appropriately required petcoke trucking, handling, and pile maintenance measures at the Monroe coal plant, but not for the piles along the Detroit River.

Thorpe: What legal options, if any, do area residents and businesses have if they believe an environmental or health danger exists?

Schroeck: There are several options. Residents and business should demand zoning changes for this area along the river. We have spent millions of dollars in public and private money to restore the riverfront and to provide excellent recreation opportunities. Petcoke piles do not belong along the river, our gateway to the world, and near neighborhoods. Citizens should contact their state and local officials, as well as the Emergency Financial Manager's office and demand the removal of the piles and better environmental protections at the site in the interim. Contacting federal representatives and encouraging them to pass national petcoke storage legislation is also a good strategy. Our neighbors in Windsor also have an interest in protecting the river and their air quality. There are international agreements like the Boundary Waters Treaty that prevent the pollution of the boundary waters, which potentially may be violated here. There are state and federal environmental laws that may have been violated by the illegal discharge of polluted stormwater into the Detroit River. And, finally, residents and businesses who have been impacted but the dust, odor and noise may very well have a strong case in court for a nuisance action.

Published: Tue, Jun 25, 2013