Detroit City Council approves pet coke regulations

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday approved a long-debated ordinance crafted to regulate the handling of petroleum coke and other bulk solid materials to protect the health of Detroit residents.

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

The law will govern how materials can be stored and transported to prohibit excessive dust, including loading and unloading of pet coke and asphalt millings.

The move seeks to minimize fugitive dust exposure to homes and vehicles as well as a visual nuisance within the city and along its waterways.

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.

Under the ordinance, piles can rise as high as 50 feet, so long as they don’t create an eyesore. Storage outdoors must be at least 25 feet from any waterway.

Facilities also have to establish dust plans listing all bulk solid materials handled, processed and transported there as well as truck routes. They will undergo inspections and install air monitoring equipment.

The council signed off on the measure Tuesday, with a 7-2 vote, following lengthy public comment. Some industry representatives urged the panel to consider alternatives, while supporters argued the city can’t wait.

Councilman Gabe Leland and President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. voted no.

“We want to make sure that we’re careful with the kind of regulations we do,” said Cushingberry, who was worried the decision will make it difficult for some city industries. “I’m sorry. I want us to thrive and prosper and protect the public health.”

But District 6 Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who introduced the plan, said the process was lengthy and inclusive. The current and past leadership of the city’s health department have supported the plan, which officials have said will benefit the city’s most vulnerable population near the piles.

“This was not done in a vacuum,” said Castaneda-Lopez prior to the vote, noting the various groups her office has met within the last year. “This has been months, actually years of work.”

The newly approved regulations, to be monitored and enforced by the city’s building department, amend an existing city ordinance to create rules for products — such as pet coke — that have raised concerns in Detroit but haven’t been covered in the current code.

Earlier Tuesday, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib spoke in favor of the plan, telling council members “don’t wait.”

“This is the movement that is happening across the country of covering up the coke,” said Talib, adding it doesn’t matter if it’s “pet coke, met coke or coke milkshake.”

“Don’t let them (the industry) do this to you. Don’t let them do this to us.”

Last year, a group of industry representatives raised concerns over the plan in a memo, arguing it was too broad and costly.

Castaneda-Lopez in July announced a revised plan that loosened some requirements dealing with air quality monitoring, street sweeping and dust removal.

Even so, various organizations and business groups remain opposed.

Doug Needham, president of the Michigan Aggregates Association, said there are several concerns surrounding the ordinance, namely costs and the impact on residents, businesses and jobs.

“While we are appreciative of the work that has been done, we believe there still is more work to be done,” he said.

Also speaking Tuesday was Beth Gotthelf, an attorney for Waterfront Terminal Holding LLC, a company that battled the city over a permit to store metallurgical coke products, including coal-based coke breeze from coke ovens, at the former Revere Copper site.

“What we’d like to see is more of a collaborative effort here,” she said. “If we could sit down face-to-face with the stakeholders, the health people and scientists, then you could get a really good ordinance for everybody.”

Guy Williams, who heads Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, countered it’s clear that pollutants exacerbate health vulnerabilities.

“I want you to understand the science says our population in Detroit is impacted directly by air pollution of multiple types,” said Williams, who added it’s “a myth” that the city’s existing laws are protective enough of public health.

Under the plan, existing companies are to be phased in to the new regulations and new companies will have to comply with them before they begin operating.

Violators are subject to a civil fine of $1,000 for the first offense. For repeat or subsequent offenses, the fine is $2,500, according to the ordinance.

Penalties for violations will be deposited into a public health fund to be used by the city for public health and wellness efforts.

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.

Marathon has produced fuel-grade petroleum coke since December 2012 but it does not transport or store open piles of it. The refinery also has said it has a comprehensive process in place to avoid dust from pet coke.

Detroiter June West told council Tuesday that the law is “overly broad” and stemmed from an “overreaction” to what the “bad actor” did with pet coke.

But Simone Sagovac, a 26-year resident of southwest Detroit, said door-to-door health surveys have shown the extreme health conditions that residents in her area are under.

“We deserve to have protections in Detroit that others have,” she said.