Detroit considers tougher rules for pet coke

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is weighing a measure that would strictly regulate the handling of petroleum coke and other bulk solid materials to protect the health of its most vulnerable residents.

Years after an uproar over 30-foot piles of petroleum coke, above, were stored by a company along the Detroit River, a plan aims to minimize dust exposure.

The proposed rules come several years after an uproar over 30-foot piles of pet coke — a byproduct of petroleum refining at the recently expanded petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit — were stored by a company along the Detroit River, blowing onto the water and neighboring properties.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s executive director of public health, said the proposed ordinance aims to minimize dust exposure in the air and water and protect residents from “anything that can potentially harm them.”

“We owe it to the 700,000 people who live in our city to think about what the consequences of allowing hazardous material into the air might be,” said El-Sayed, noting the city’s 48217 ZIP code is the most polluted in the state, with residents suffering from higher rates of asthma and disease.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell said the city is seeking to amend its ordinance to establish a specific set of rules for products — such as pet coke — that have raised concerns in Detroit and should be addressed, but aren’t under current code.

The ordinance amendment would govern how the materials can be stored and transported, including loading and unloading of pet coke and asphalt millings, to prohibit excessive dust. Facilities would also have to establish dust plans and install monitoring systems, and would be prohibited from dumping or storing the materials on public or privately owned property or water without a permit.

Violators would be subject to civil blight fines. The law does allow for variances from specific provisions.

Separately, a zoning change would expand the city’s definition of coal and coke yards to include bulk materials and petroleum coke, and lay out district specifications.

Not everyone is cheering the regulations, however. A group of industry representatives is cautioning Detroit that its draft plan casts too broad a net and suggests officials rethink the terms.

Business worries

Beyond controversial pet coke, the coal-based byproduct coke breeze and metallurgical coke, the proposal lays out stringent protocols for other bulk solid materials such as concrete, sand and limestone. It’s a move some in the industry contend could drive businesses out of the city and damage the city’s tax base.

In a March letter to Detroit’s City Council, representatives from the shipping, construction material and scrap metal processing industries contended the ordinance would impose “a very broad, strict, prescriptive and costly approach to regulating facilities that store virtually any material outdoors.”

The Detroit Regional Chamber, meanwhile, noted it does not have an official position on the ordinance, but submitted feedback from members participating in a work group of its energy and environmental committee.

The group, the March letter noted, does agree that public health in Detroit is a top priority. But it contends the most affected industries are already subject to a “magnitude” of regulations and fugitive dust can be controlled with best practices “without over-regulating an already over-regulated business community.”

The draft ordinance changes are the product of discussions with council members, the city’s building and safety officials, and the health department.

“We want to find harmony between business and the public’s health,” El-Sayed said.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Detroit-headquartered Ferrous Processing & Trading, said the scrap metal recycling company is among the businesses that participated in the chamber’s input sessions and would be impacted by the ordinance, as written.

“Ferrous Processing supports the city’s efforts to protect public health and safety, and we are working with the chamber and the city to address all concerns,” she said.

Waterfront wrangling

The discussion was revived after Detroit in February denied a permit request from Waterfront Terminal Holdings LLC for the temporary storage of various dry bulk materials including the coal-based byproduct coke breeze, aluminum, ash, gravel and slag at the former Revere Copper site on the west Jefferson waterfront. In its application, the company also raised the possibility of pet coke.

In his denial letter, David Bell, the interim director of Detroit’s building department, wrote the proposed use was contrary to the vision for Detroit’s waterfront. Additionally, dust from the operation, which is next to Historic Fort Wayne, could disrupt enjoyment of the property, he said.

The company is challenging the decision with the Board of Zoning Appeals and is hopeful that a resolution can be reached, said Beth Gotthelf, an attorney for Waterfront.

Waterfront, Gotthelf said, is a longtime fuel and energy supplier to the city that’s managed local and regional petroleum and dry bulk material storage facilities. The company, she added, has no plans for pet coke and is prepared to comply with the ordinance the city’s crafting.

“They have a great reputation as a reliable, environmentally conscience, ethical company,” she said, noting the company is regulated by the state and federal governments, has protocols to control dust and passed state inspection for its practices.

To establish a coal or coke yard in Detroit, businesses are required to have a special land use hearing to gain approval.

Right now, there are no permitted coal or coke yards in Detroit, said Paul Max, an environmental specialist with the city’s Building Safety Engineering & Environmental Department. There aren’t any non-permitted yards operating either, officials said.

Southwest Detroit resident Theresa Landrum said, “We have all kinds of concerns from pollutants in the air.”

Resident wants more

In 2013, residents in Windsor and Detroit demanded answers as mounds of petroleum coke grew into small mountains along the Detroit River.

The product, produced by Marathon Petroleum Co., was sold to Wichita-based Koch Minerals LLC and handled by Detroit Bulk Storage at a site off Jefferson in southwest Detroit, where it was loaded onto freighters.

The black, rock-like substance produced by the petroleum industry is used as fuel worldwide. But environmental advocates and residents in the heavily industrialized area complained over dust and the potential for water runoff into the Detroit River.

Southwest Detroit resident Theresa Landrum has long fought against pollutants and ensuring that companies in the tri-city area of Detroit, Ecorse and River Rouge are held accountable.

Landrum lobbied against the pet coke piles, brought concerns to Detroit’s elected officials and says that an ordinance putting local restrictions in place is long overdue.

“That’s a first step. But more needs to be done,” she said. “We have all kinds of concerns from pollutants in the air from all kinds of industry that’s been out here contributing to it.”

Amid concern, federal and state environmental officials conducted tests of the coke piles and determined that they were not toxic and didn’t pose a threat to human health.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that significant quantities of fugitive dust from pet coke storage and handing operations does present a health risk.

Detroit Bulk Storage eventually stopped accepting shipments of pet coke, and former Mayor Dave Bing demanded the piles be removed.

Jamal Kheiry, a spokesman for Marathon, did not weigh in on the pet coke ordinance plan since it’s in the early stages. Marathon has produced fuel-grade petroleum coke since December 2012 but it does not transport or store it, he said.

“We don’t store open piles or transport,” Kheiry told The Detroit News. “I don’t think our operations are a target of concern.”

The refinery, he added, has a comprehensive process in place to avoid any dust from pet coke.

But Kheiry declined to identify the Marathon customers who purchase and transport the pet coke, or where it goes.

City Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez said she hopes the local laws can move to the public hearing phase by the end of this month, and be implemented by the end of May.

“There really are no regulations of these issues in terms of dust control and mitigation,” she said. “Even if it’s sand, people don’t want sand flying all over their houses.”