Before you read this blog post, navigate to your favorite search engine, type in “Detroit petroleum coke,” and peruse the results for a moment (don’t forget to come back and keep reading).

If you’re new to this issue, you might be able to quickly piece together a story about a “…three-story pile of toxic by-product…” that has helped “…Detroit’s riverfront gain national attention” amidst “growing outrage, and calls for action…” from “worried residents.” You may see that even with “…study results released..., concerns linger” and “…unanswered questions…” remain as to the ecological and human health risks posed by the growing pile of oil refinery waste on the banks of the Detroit River. On the other hand, you could be left thinking the headlines are making a big deal out of something that is “…not hazardous…” or even “…not that much of a problem at all”. And maybe the bright side of the issue is that it “…helps a struggling coal plant stay in business.”

If you dig in beyond the headlines, you get the full story (or at least what journalists, activists, and politicians know at this point):

The Marathon oil refinery in southwest Detroit started refining petroleum from the Alberta oil sands last fall. That refining process creates petroleum coke as a waste product—petcoke, if you will. Residents don’t think it looks as cute as it sounds, however, especially when it’s piled three stories high on the banks of the Detroit River. While a black mountain of Canadian oil waste waves its welcome to travelers crossing into the U.S. over the bridge from Windsor, Ontario, residents on both sides of the border are waving their fingers at Koch Carbon, Detroit Bulk Storage, and Marathon for their roles in creating an eyesore and potential public health problem. Samples have been collected and tested, public meetings have been held, bills have been introduced, articles have been written, and some of the petcoke has begun meandering back to Canada to be burned in a Nova Scotia powerplant.

It’s kind of a mess. An environmental, political, economic, and social mess that is, unfortunately, all too familiar to Detroit residents.

Since the headlines first appeared this spring, I’ve been following the fate of the petcoke from my home 40 miles away in Ann Arbor. So, I know which questions have been raised and investigated publicly—where it came from, who owns it, and where it’s going—but how many of those answers were reaching local residents?

I went down to Riverside Park, nestled between the two piles of petcoke on the bank of the Detroit River, to find out.

When I asked fishermen, -women, and –kids lined up along river what they had heard about the petroleum coke pile around the corner, answers ranged from “…petroleum what…?” to “…illegal dumping… and it might hurt the water...” (to which another resident replied, “It better not hurt my fish!”).

Longtime southwest Detroit resident and frequent Riverside Park patron, José Luis Barrera, has seen and heard about the piles, and he’s still waiting for answers to two questions: (1) is it hazardous, and (2) why is it here?

Well, José Luis, you couldn’t have chosen more pertinent or more perplexing questions.

Is it hazardous?

Short answer: it depends.

The long answer is past the scope of this blog post, but let’s at least try to scratch the surface here.

Is it technically classified as a hazardous material? Not according to the EPA (Canada hasn’t thought about it yet). Marathon’s own Material Data Safety Sheet explains that petcoke itself is not classified as a hazardous waste by the EPA, but it could be when “discarded, spilled, or disposed of.” Stephen Boyle, an activist with Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands (D-CATS) interprets the EPA’s language to mean that this particular pile of petcoke is indeed hazardous waste because it’s being stored on land while it waits for the next step in its lifecycle (check out Section 261.4.12(i) to try your own interpretation).

Is it a hazard, though? As in, could it possibly do harm? Yes. It’s a big pile of carbon-sulfur-selenium-vanadium chunks sitting next to a river. Use your imagination to consider what kind of harm could be done through an action of your choice (everything from coke-eating birds to kids playing King or Queen of the Mountain is acceptable here).

So, maybe the more relevant question is how much of a risk it poses for the citizens and creatures of Detroit and Windsor. What is the probability of harm actually being done? Answering that question means looking more closely at that pile of petcoke and tracing where the pieces and particles go, how they get there, and what effect they have along the way and at their final destination (be it a person, plant, animal, or powerplant plume miles away).

My own search through the literature didn’t reveal any studies on the environmental exposures and outcomes of a petcoke pile exactly like this, but a recent study coming out of the oil sands area of Alberta saw trace metal uptake in algae and aquatic invertebrates when petcoke was used in constructed wetlands. But that’s a story for another day.

Why is it here?

Short answer: Detroit Bulk Storage put it there.

The long answer here is worth digging into. This deeper question has been at the center of countless environmental justice debates over the years, and it still pops up despite recent strides in bringing environmental justice considerations into planning and policy.

While it has grown from being focused on the disproportionate amount of toxic waste stored or dumped near minority and low-income communities to taking a more holistic approach to environmental health and community well-being, environmental justice developed its roots while answering this question across the U.S.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor, leading environmental justice scholar and advocate at the University of Michigan, points her students towards five main arguments for why hazardous material so often shows up in the backyards of people of color:

  1. Deliberate discrimination: Minority and low income communities are deliberately targeted to host such lovely amenities as PBC dumpsites and incinerators.
  2. Just plain economic common sense: If a company has the choice between cheap land with easy access to transportation and more expensive land that may be far from transportation and workers, which do you think it will choose?
  3. Path of least resistance: A 1984 report on resistance to waste-incinerators in California identified characteristics of communities that were least likely to put up a fight. Among those characteristics were low income, low education, and lack of civic involvement. While the report did not explicitly encourage companies to seek out these neighborhoods for all their waste-dumping needs, the implications were clear for many industries.
  4. The old chicken-or-egg question: Which came first—the polluting industry or the people? Maybe residents choose to move close to hazardous facilities for jobs or cheap rent. That may happen, but studies have revealed more complexity than that, with neighborhood dynamics changing in response to the new facilities moving to town.
  5. Zoning and residential segregation: Historical housing discrimination has set up a system in some cities that puts low-income residential areas near industrial districts or has placed barriers to residency in non-industrial neighborhoods by stipulating lot sizes, excluding multi-family dwellings, or enforcing owner-occupancy rules.

So, what’s going on in southwest Detroit? Which of these patterns might help explain this growing pile of petcoke, beyond the long line of buying, selling, and transporting that moved the coke from the refinery to the lots by the river?

Let’s consider some facts. The area around the petcoke piles is home to:

  • An oil refinery, a steel plant, a major international shipping route and bridge crossing, freight infrastructure, cheap vacant land, and Michigan’s most polluted zipcode;
  • A largely Black and Hispanic population that saw more hospitalizations from asthma between 2007-2009 than the average combined rate for the tri-county area;
  • A housing and zoning structure based on historical discriminatory practices;
  • A network of community organizers, activists, concerned citizens, and representatives at all levels of government that is actively working to understand the situation, educate each other, and create change.

So, again….why is this pile here?

Maybe this question is also a bit too complex for this post. To figure out why a pile of petroleum coke is growing near W. Jefferson and 14th Street in Detroit requires first asking broader questions that breech international and academic borders—questions of policy, science, history, and human nature.

As organizers and activists acknowledge, this petcoke pile is just one very visible piece in the intricate system of global resources. It’s a system that connects people, profits, smoke plumes, and piles of waste where the physical realities of shared water, soil, and air meet the systemic realities of disproportionate burdens and benefits all along the trail of the energy source.

The good news for Detroit residents like José Luis (who is probably still waiting for satisfying answers to his original questions) is that things are moving in Detroit. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, urged by lawmakers and residents, is now working to ensure the petcoke storage meets state standards for air and water quality management.

While permits could change the nature of petcoke storage in Detroit, the long and short-term ripple effects from this incident could be felt by residents of Detroit, the Alberta oil sands, and everywhere in between. The obvious and not-so-obvious questions will keep coming from those residents. We just might have to follow more than the news headlines to find the answers…

To Learn More:

Petroleum Coke: The coal hiding in the tar sands

Detroit Petcoke News and Resources

Principles of Environmental Justice

Thanks to the residents who let me interrupt their fishing and to the activists and experts who shared stories and insights.

Photos: by the author