Detroit board says no to coke breeze pile on riverfront

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A city zoning board on Tuesday rejected a company’s request to store uncovered piles of coal-based byproduct coke breeze along the Detroit riverfront.

The decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals followed a lengthy appeal hearing over permit conditions the city mandated for Waterfront Terminal Holdings LLC.

In its decision, the zoning board cited concerns over public health and potential negative impacts of fugitive dust on surrounding properties, including nearby Historic Fort Wayne.

“In light of Flint and what is happening in Flint, I just want people to realize I am all for economic development, but I’m also concerned about the community,” board chairman Keith Williams said shortly before the board unanimously rejected Waterfront’s appeal.

The company applied to store metallurgical coke products, including coal-based coke breeze from coke ovens on Zug Island, uncovered at the former Revere Copper site.

The company also intends to store aluminum, gravel, concrete and slag as well as aggregates, such as limestone and sand, on the 12-acre site.

In its application, which was initially turned down by the city, Waterfront also raised the possibility of storing petroleum coke, or “pet coke,” which is a byproduct of petroleum refining. But But Beth Gotthelf, an attorney for the company, noted there are no plans to store the controversial byproduct on the west Jefferson site.

Detroit building and safety officials in April allowed for the storage of carbonaceous materials such as coal or coke products but only enclosed in a structure with water-tight ground protection that can transfer the material through an enclosed conveyor system. Building officials on Tuesday said they stand by their restrictions, noting there are no coal or coke yards permitted for outdoor storage in Detroit.

Waterfront did not immediately comment Tuesday on the denial of its appeal, but the company could now take its appeal to court.

Detroit’s executive director of Public Health, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, said the decision was the right one for Detroit.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is what is the city’s responsibility to public health,” he said. “We do hope they can continue to do business but comply with those two requirements that protect our air and water.”

The storage of petroleum coke as well as coke breeze, a form of metallurgical coke, has been contentious since another firm stored 30-foot high piles of petroleum coke along the river several years ago and it blew onto homes and into the waterway.

Federal and state environmental officials conducted tests of the piles and determined they were not toxic. But the Environmental Protection Agency has said significant quantities of fugitive dust from pet coke storage and handing operations does present a health risk.

Earlier Tuesday, Gotthelf called the permit conditions “onerous,” noting they have “never been imposed on anybody before.” Waterfront’s environmental practices and testing have shown the substance is not dangerous and does not create off-site dust, she claimed.

“Waterfront has been a good Detroit corporate citizen, complying with all the laws and regularly giving back,” Gotthelf said.

“It’s just a generalized fear. It’s like telling someone you can’t have a driver’s license because you might get into a car accident,” said Gotthelf, who passed bagged samples of metallurgical coke to zoning board members. “I hope you will base your decision on the facts rather than emotion.”

El-Sayed argued during Tuesday’s hearing there’s little difference between pet coke and metallurgical coke. Either type, he contends, would be dangerous in an area already coined the “epicenter” of asthma.

“The reality is we have a responsibility to protect children from this,” El-Sayed said. “The city already granted this (permit). All we’re asking is that you cover the stuff up because we don’t want it in people’s lungs.”

Detroit’s City Council is studying an ordinance and zoning changes that would govern storage and other practices for coal and coke yards.