Much has been written recently about the mysterious black piles that appeared in one day in November 2012 on the banks of the Detroit River, not far from the Motor City’s downtown district, right next to the Ambassador Bridge – the busiest international crossing in North America. These huge stockpiles of petroleum coke, the byproduct of refining tar sands oil at the Marathon refinery in Southwest Detroit, are owned by Koch Carbon, a company run by the brothers Charles and David Koch.
Debate about possible health and environmental concerns, as well as permit and storage issues have been widely reported in the press both in the US and across the river in Windsor, Canada. Citizen and environmental groups are calling for action, while US Congressman Gary Peters (D-Mich) introduced the Petroleum Transparency and Public Health Study Act in Washington on June 6, 2013 that calls for an investigation into the piles and seeks information on how Michigan residents are affected by them.
This series of photographs takes a closer look at the people the petroleum coke piles are impacting, the areas around the stockpiles and where it is being produced.
McKenzie Duke looks out the window onto the three story piles of petroleum coke accumulating across the street from the building she lives in. Duke, an attorney and counselor in Detroit, moved into The Hudson lofts building on Fort street in August 2012. In November that same year, piles of petroleum coke, the byproduct of refining tar sands crude from Alberta, appeared and started growing across the street. During the past 6-8 weeks since the weather has been warmer, she has had her windows open and says she has been feeling poorly. Her face has broken out in a severe rash and her doctor has been unable to find out what could be causing it.
Piles of petroleum coke, or pet coke, stored close to the city center along the Detroit River just east of the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest international crossing in North America. The material is produced at the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Southwest Detroit and has been purchased by Koch Carbon, a company run by the brothers David and Charles Koch. Detroit Bulk Storage is managing the stockpiles on industrial property leased from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, with transportation from the refinery provided by Savage Industries of Melvindale, Michigan.
In response to questions about storage along the river, Paul Baltzer Director of Communication for Koch Companies wrote in an email statement, “Koch Carbon owns the petroleum coke currently being stored and shipped from a facility operated by Detroit Bulk Storage. Under our contract, the material is to be stored and handled in a safe and compliant manner, in accordance with all applicable city, state and federal requirements.”
With additional concerns about permits being granted for the storage of this type of material along the river, Daniel Cherrin, spokesperson for Detroit Bulk Storage said in a written statement, “An application for a permit to store the pet coke in its current location has been submitted to the City of Detroit for review. A variance has also been requested. Detroit Bulk continues to work with government officials, ensuring full compliance.”
With local residents, business owners and Canadians across the river in Windsor, concerned about potential and environmental risks resulting from the uncovered stockpiles, U.S. Congress man Gary Peters (D-Mich) holds a press conference on May 28th, 2013 to raise new concerns about pet coke stored along the river.
With the black coal-like mounds visible behind him, Peters told reporters, “This material is basically dirtier than the dirtiest coal.” He added, “Michiganders deserve answers for why pet coke is allowed to be stored in open air, near the Detroit River and our community, and whether this is being stored with proper permits.” The following week Peters introduced the Petroleum Transparency and Public Health Study Act in Washington.
Fishermen on the Detroit River troll by Koch Carbon’s mountains of pet coke on an early Sunday morning. When asked, many who fish the river say they are not concerned about potential hazards like runoff or dust from the piles on them, the fish in the river or the Great Lakes watershed. The city’s much-photographed abandoned train station, Michigan Central Station, sits only a few blocks away, while storm drains that run under the site can be seen running into the river.
Petroleum coke resembles large grains of sand and is slightly sticky to the touch. Its high heat and low ash content make it attractive for burning in coal-fired power plants but it is high in sulfur thus, to comply with current North American emissions standards, some form of sulfur capture is required.
Media continue to shy-away from reporting petroleum coke that is churning out of the Marathon refinery in SW Detroit is in fact being burned at the DTE Monroe coal plant just downriver from the piles.
Current news reports have stated that pet coke from the Marathon refinery is being sold mostly for use in overseas markets like China and India where it will be burned as fuel. However, DTE Energy spokesperson Randi Berris has confirmed that the power company did use pet coke from the Detroit refinery in tests at their Monroe coal plant downriver in February and March of this year.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment granted DTE an air permit in late 2010, just before new stricter federal regulations came into effect to burn the material. The permit allows DTE to burn 10-12% pet coke in its fuel mix at the facility according to Berris.
Randi Berris, spokesperson for DTE Energy confirmed in a phone conversation that the plant has burned petroleum coke during tests in August 2012, February and March 2013. A total of 13,500 tons of pet coke was used over the three months. She said the Marathon refinery in SW Detroit supplied the pet coke for the February and March tests, with 500 tons – 10 truck-loads – coming directly from the controversial piles along the river upstream in Detroit. Pet coke for the August 2012 tests came from Louisiana according to Berris.
She added that with the controversy surrounding the Koch-owned stockpiles along the Detroit river, DTE decided against getting its supply from that location in the future because they, as she put it, “want to be good corporate citizens.” She said that if DTE decides to burn petroleum coke in the future, and they choose the Marathon refinery to get it from, they will secure supplies directly from the refinery, not an outside supplier.
The petroleum coke stored along the river is produced here at the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Southwest Detroit. Located in an economically distressed area of the city, home to the most polluted ZIP code – 48217 – in Michigan, Marathon put $2.2 billion dollars into refitting and expanding the refinery to handle the large flow of tar sands crude coming from Alberta transported via the Enbridge pipeline.
This expansion has encroached even further on the already crumbling neighborhood of Oakwood Heights bordering it. Marathon has offered buyouts to some homeowners so they can relocate in effort to create a ‘buffer zone’ around the refinery, while holding out on others.
Sherry Griswold has lived here for over 20 years. The expansion of the refinery has not only brought the section that produces the pet coke right up to the boarder of her lot, she says it has created a nightmare of explosions and chemical releases that have severely damaged her health.
According to Sherry, a recent incident on May 21, 2013, exposed her to an overwhelming dose of chemicals, “I walked outside and the whole ground was shaking.” She described. “I called on them finally at seven o’clock, it started at one, I couldn’t handle it no more, I couldn’t handle the noise, I had nowhere to go.”
She called Marathon and they shut it down immediately. “That’s when they gassed me through the front window,” she said.
The following morning she woke up smelling gas with her skin and eyes burning. Her doctor advised her to get to the Emergency Room where they x-rayed her lungs to check for inhalation of chemicals and treated burns to her arms and face.
Sherry added that on May 29, her doctor informed her during a check-up that tests have shown her brain has been injured from exposure to chemicals and that he has referred her to The Michigan Institute for Neurological Disorders, MIND for treatment.
Rhonda Anderson (left), Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Program, talks with Sherry during a recent visit to Sherry’s home. Rhonda has been helping her since 2010 in her fight against Marathon refinery.
Since Governor Rick Snyder has been in office Rhonda feels nothing with regards to environmental justice has been done for citizens of the community. Speaking on industry and environmental justice she says, “They run, they can’t stand it, cause they think it’s gonna cost them some money.”
“But then what’s the cost to the community? Whose cost is the most important?” She adds, “Right now, residents are on the losing end.”
Sherry keeps careful track of the incidents she witnesses in her home coming from the refinery next door and each call she makes to report it. This is her list from May detailing dates, times and incident numbers given to her by Marathon.
The Marathon refinery can be seen from just about every angle in Sherry’s neighborhood. Rhonda Anderson says that communities like these are the sacrifice zones. When addressing environmental justice, she first looks at communities of color, and low income communities because this is where industry most often sets up shop.
“This is what’s happening to Sherry, this is what’s happening to this entire community,” Rhonda explains.
Marathon Petroleum has purchased and demolished a number of homes in the neighborhood bordering the refinery, offering buyouts for some home owners and renters, to create a ‘buffer zone’ around the facility.
Some residents here have hired real estate agents to help sell their homes instead of taking a buyout, hoping for a better offer from Marathon. Others like Sherry Griswold and her friend and landlord Tom Gutenschwager, who owns a welding business across the street from her, were offered nothing even though they are the closest property to the refinery.
“They’re trying to smoke us out,” Sherry says.
The neighborhood next to the refinery has a surreal air about it. Buildings purchased by Marathon are boarded up and locked with TV satellite dishes and Christmas lights still attached. These sit next to vacant lots and homes with families living in them while other houses across the street are burned-out and strewn with litter.
Just down the street from Sherry Griswold, Robert Parmenter sits on his front porch. He has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and rents the place. Marathon did not offer him a buyout to leave. “I’m ready to go,” he says. “As soon as [the landlord] sells the house, I’d be out the same day.”
He adds, “This neighborhood ain’t no good man,” and says Marathon has ruined the entire area. When asked about any health problems he has from living next to the refinery, he replies, “You mean except breathing?”
Residential neighborhoods surround the Marathon refinery. These homes in Melvindale, on the other side of the refinery from Oakwood Heights also back up to the facility.
Sam Rosado has lived in the industrial area of Southwest Detroit for 16 years. Fishing on the shore across from the piles of petroleum coke and coal on Zug Island, not far from the Marathon refinery and home to United States Steel, he says he won’t eat the fish he catches and does it just for fun.
Casting out his line he adds, “I pulled some fish out of here and they don’t look right.”
Sam says of his catch across from Zug Island, “If I get something big enough I give it away to some people I know.”
Back upriver, in a fishing area next to the controversial stockpiles of pet coke owned by Koch Carbon, Lawrence Jackson pulls a Silver Bass out of the river. He doesn’t worry too much about contamination he says.
The General Motors Renaissance Center, world headquarters of the Detroit auto giant, looms in the background of the stockpiles of pet coke along the river. According to Detroit Bulk Storage, the company in charge of storing and managing the material at this site, six acres of asphalt has been put down under the piles to direct any runoff water away from the Detroit River and towards the center of the pad in compliance with DEQ guidelines. They claim the asphalt also provides an impermeable barrier between the pet coke and the ground soil.
A vacuum and water truck are stationed at the site and according to Detroit Bulk Storage, used to help keep dust levels down. In a statement from the company, spokesperson Daniel Cherrin writes, “Detroit Bulk continuously sprays the roadways and the active piles of pet coke with water from a 3000 gallon tanker truck to minimize fugitive dust in the air, water or land around the property.”
Cherrin adds, “Detroit Bulk sprays the piles with an encrusting agent similar to an epoxy seal on non-active piles to trap fugitive dust and the absence of a traditional canvas or tarp on the piles, does not indicate that the piles have not been sealed in order to prevent the emission of dust particles. Detroit Bulk has a vacuum truck on the property which is used as needed to conform to the Fugitive Dust Plan submitted to the DEQ.”
From the picnic tables outside the Green Dot Stables restaurant on West Lafayette, the black piles of pet coke along the river are clearly visible and only a block away. At first, owner Jacques Driscoll was a bit disappointed that the three story piles blocked his customers’ international view across the river to Canada, but later began to be concerned about other issues that might arise from the uncovered piles being stored so close.
Jacques is now worried about the pet coke and what storing it out in the open might do to him, his family, his employees and his customers. He and his wife live close by and he wishes someone would come out with a definitive answer if it is harmful or not.
“I don’t want to be a whistleblower or anything like that, I just want to know,” he says. “Not knowing is the hardest part.”
“Let’s say that it is fine, but it has a minimal health affect, what if I live here for the next 30 years, I’m still exposed to it. What about the other people that live here? Do you want to have that in the back of your mind every time you open a window?”
Jacques started the Green Dot Stables restaurant with his wife Christine just over a year ago. They are part of a growing number of young entrepreneurs who have set up business in Detroit not only take advantage of opportunity as the city struggles to recover from economic crisis, but to contribute its comeback and be a part of the community.
Talking about the uncovered pet coke sitting just a block away he says, “It’s pretty ballsy to put something on the river knowing that it’s bad, if it truly is bad, and try to get away with it.”
A Canadian view of the stockpiles along the river the city shares with Detroit. Here in Windsor, Canadians not only look out onto the pet coke piles each day but complain of the large amounts of dust and particulate matter in the air that blows over the river onto their city. Many are sounding alarm bells about the potential health and environmental issues of storing the piles out in the open.
Dan Germain looks out the eighth floor windows of the high-rise condo he shares with his wife Ruth and their daughter across the river from Detroit in Windsor. The family relocated from just outside Toronto three years ago and after moving into their new condominium at Portofino Riverside Towers along the river, were impressed with the view they had of the Detroit skyline.
But that changed after the piles of Petroleum coke appeared in November 2012. Dan’s wife, Ruth Gemain, wrote letters about the pet coke piles to the city and provincial governments but she says, “Ontario has been quiet about it.”
Fed up with the dust, worried about potential health risks, and tired of waiting for the government to step in, Ruth started the Facebook page, Petroleum Coke Awareness Detroit, in March 2013 to raise awareness about the issue. With little information about the production and use of petroleum coke, she started researching, connecting with others and putting up her findings on the page.
The Windsor Star was one of the first newspapers to write about the piles she says, well before the Detroit Press ever took notice. She cannot understand why there is no US law mandating the piles be covered.
“We shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel here,” she says, “since one already exists in California that regulates that state’s petroleum coke storage.” She adds that people across the river in Detroit don’t realize, “What impacts you, impacts us.”
People enjoy a Sunday morning fishing on the Windsor shore. Across the river, not far from the Ambassador Bridge and the controversial piles of pet coke, Detroit Bulk Storage manages another site, seen here, at the Nicholson Docks where the material is also being stored and loaded onto freighters.
Back in Detroit, the debate heats up over the pet coke piles and with the Petroleum Transparency and Public Health Study Act introduced in Washington to deal with the issue, local residents and businesses on both sides of the river are waiting for answers.
Daniel Cherrin, spokesperson from Detroit Bulk Storage welcomes the opportunity to talk with others about the precautions being taken to ensure the health and safety of the community, “With the shipping season underway, empty vessels will appear at the docks every two weeks or sooner to be loaded with pet coke which will result in smaller stockpiles along the river. The community concerns about their health and safety while the petroleum coke may be stockpiled outside awaiting transport are understandable.”
Windsor resident Ruth Germain puts it this way, referring to the entire process of extracting, transporting, refining and burning crude from the Alberta oil sands, “[People] need to realize it’s not just the piles and there is much more to it.”