There’s Something in the Air, Something in the Water, and It’s Making Someone a Lot of Money

Tags: air quality, Canadian Tar Sands, fossil fuels, Petroleum Coke, water quality

Petroleum coke being loaded onto a barge on the Detroit River.

As the weather warmed up at the end of this past winter, Detroiters noticed something more ominous poking out of the melting snow than spring flowers. Along the American side of the Detroit River Koch Carbon—yup, as in those Koch brothers—has been storing petroleum coke, a coal-like byproduct created during the refining process of Canadian Tar Sands oil.The coke is being generated at a Marathon Petroleum refinery on Detroit’s southwest side, where it is then sold to Koch Carbon. Detroit Bulk Storage—a company owned by none other than Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun—leases space to Koch Carbon to store the coke on property it owns along the river.

As the petcoke mountain grew, so did the public outcry. And the response from Koch Carbon and Detroit Bulk Storage has been, shockingly enough, underwhelming. Koch Carbon continues to load the petcoke onto freighters bound for, among other places, a power plant in Canada owned by utility company Nova Scotia Power

As the petcoke is shipped out to Nova Scotia, Marathon has continued to sell its petcoke to Koch. And the piles continue to climb. Although Detroit Bulk Storage recently submitted a draft fugitive dust control plan to the MDEQ, it is doing very little to mitigate its very real impact on the city today.

Some of the exact same concerns raised by Detroiters have been raised before by other cities. More than a decade ago, Long Beach, California found itself in a similar predicament. Starting in the late eighties, uncovered mounds of petroleum coke piled up along the Port of Long Beach and local residents were becoming increasingly concerned about the particulate dust coating their windows and filling their lungs. In order to prevent the serious health problems that the petcoke dust creates for vulnerable individuals (particularly those with respiratory problems, including asthma), the operator of the port was required to construct concrete domes designed to prevent the dust from becoming airborne.

The same concerns voiced in California are relevant to the current debate here in Michigan, and the need for regulations is perhaps even greater. Here in a state known for its unpredictable weather, worries about the dust getting into our lungs are compounded by worries about it leeching potentially toxic metallic compounds into our water.

Although it would be nice if Koch Carbon were a responsible steward of the environment, until that sweet day comes to pass  we need our government to hold them accountable for the external costs that their business exerts on the public and the environment. 

Take Action!

Join Congressman Gary Peters in speaking out against turning Detroit into a petcoke dumping ground. And moving forward let’s tip the ongoing energy debate in favor of clean, safe energy generation and away from these dirty fossil fuels.

Logan De Roos is an intern with Michigan LCV.

Photo courtesy of