Residents, Groups Worry About Possible Return of Petcoke to Riverfront

February 5, 2014
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Detroit Bulk Storage made a name for itself last year after the company was connected to the small mountains of petroleum coke (“petcoke” for short) that gathered on the Detroit River shoreline.

Residents, local organizations and elected officials took issue with the possible impact of the coal-black material, a byproduct created when tar-like bitumen from the Alberta, Canada, oil sands is turned into gasoline. On a windy day, southwest Detroit neighborhoods were showered by the material, which was produced at the nearby Marathon Oil Refinery. Eventually, after a bevy of officials and activists called for protective action, Detroit Bulk Storage, the proprietor of the land where the petcoke mountains sat, agreed to halt storage. 

But if the company has its way with Detroit’s Board of Zoning Appeals next week, some fear the piles of petcoke might return to their previous location, The Windsor Star reports. Detroit Bulk Storage is asking the board to grant a previously denied height variance for materials on the property.

That’s a problem, says Rhonda Anderson, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club Detroit.

“This meeting is as important as the meetings that … we held with the Detroit land and development (department),” Anderson tells Metro Times.

Anderson says the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told her organization last year that Detroit Bulk Storage lacked a permit to store such materials on the shoreline.

“How did this escape everybody’s attention that this company was storing possibly hazardous materials along the river?” she says.

But a Detroit Bulk Storage official told The Detroit News that it’s a baseless idea to assume the company will store petcoke along the river’s shoreline again:

The company has no plans to store the material on its property, but it is seeking the variance to store materials such as salt or limestone at heights above the current fence line.

“This process has nothing to do with petroleum coke,” said Noel Frye, vice president of marine traffic for Detroit Bulk Storage. “We would rather the city come out and say that they don’t have any problem with you storing anything else there as long as you have this height variance.”

If that’s the case, says Anderson, then it should be in writing.

“That needs to be made very clear,” she says, “that it’s not for the petcoke; that it’s for some other material. And then we should be questioning what is that material.

“It should be very transparent up front, whatever the material is that they plan to store.”

Detroit Bulk Storage’s appeal will be heard by the Detroit Zoning Board of Appeals inside the Erma Henderson Auditorium on the 13th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center next Tuesday at 9 a.m.

(Former Metro Times News Editor Curt Guyette’s cover story from last year on the petcoke issue can be found here.)