Detroit denies Marathon's request for open-air pet coke storage

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Marathon applied last August for an allowance to keep storing petroleum coke, a byproduct of crude oil refining, on its site. A city department denied that request Monday.

Detroit — The city has denied Marathon oil refinery's request for open-air storage of petroleum coke on its southwest Detroit site.

Detroit's Buildings, Safety Engineering & Environmental Department issued a three-page decision Monday denying the request, citing Marathon's failure to demonstrate that its storage and processing of petroleum coke, a byproduct of crude oil refining, won't negatively impact neighbors.

The company applied last August for the allowance, which was met with resistance from neighbors and some lawmakers who have long complained of odors and environmental worries tied to the operations of the plant. 

David Bell, director of Detroit's building department, wrote in the Monday decision that Marathon's argument is based on the assertion that there have been no visible emissions since its coker unit began operating in 2012 and "they have not caused a public nuisance."

"They have offered no analytical data or air monitoring data of any sort that would conclusively show that there are no fugitive dust emissions from the coke pit," wrote Bell, who also noted Marathon has not demonstrated that its testing methods meet ordinance standards as well as its dust mitigation practices.

Ray Scott, deputy director of the building department, told The News on Monday that from here, it would be in the company's best interest to apply again. 

Under the decision, the company does not have to halt its petroleum coke processing right now. But if Marathon ultimately fails to gain approval, it would have to cover the storage area, he said. 

"They can come back, and they can reapply and they can show us that 'OK, this is how we address the issues with your concerns,'" Scott said.

Jamal Kheiry, a spokesman for Marathon, said Monday that the company had not yet received formal notification of the decision. 

"We will evaluate our options once we have received notification and reviewed it thoroughly," Kheiry said in an email. 

The company in August applied to seek a variance from a city ordinance that prescribes how petroleum coke and other bulk solid materials must be stored. At that time, the company said it believed it was in compliance with emissions limits and covering its coke operation would lead to a tremendous financial hardship. 

Marathon noted that there is no long-term storage of accumulation of petroleum coke at the Detroit refinery. Coke is manufactured, processed and shipped on a continuous basis. It typically remains in the coke pit for no more than four days before loading out in trucks, the company said. 

The ordinance, which became effective in 2017, requires that petroleum coke, or "pet coke," be stored in enclosed containers. 

Detroit adopted the restrictions after complaints from residents in southwest Detroit about the mass storage of pet coke in uncovered piles along the Detroit River. Marathon has stored its petroleum coke at its refinery and not along the river.

Marathon is the first company to apply for a variance for open-air storage of petroleum coke since the ordinance went into place, Scott said. 

Monday's decision comes as two Michigan lawmakers have teamed on a bill addressing health concerns about the open-air storage of the petroleum coke. 

The legislation by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, would require the federal government to study the potential public health risks and environmental impacts posed by petroleum coke exposure.

The bill also calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in consultation with the secretary of transportation, to draft and implement rules concerning the storage and transportation of pet coke “that ensure the protection of public and ecological health” based upon the study’s results.

Peters, in a statement, said when pet coke piles were stored in the open near the Detroit River years ago, it blew into homes, impacted businesses and flowed into the waterway.

“I applaud the City of Detroit for reaffirming today that pet coke piles have no place being stored in the open again along the Detroit River," he said. "While this is an important step, I will continue pursuing federal action to put standards in place so Michiganders can be protected from the risks of exposure to pet coke.”

Scott said Monday that the city can monitor the Marathon site and if they find any violations, the company will be subject to fines. Penalties, he said, can range from blight fines to misdemeanors. 

In its August variance request, Marathon claimed that since the coke processing, handling and trucking operating went into effect, it hadn’t received any state air quality violations or citizen complaints. Testing, the company said, demonstrated that the petroleum coke operation meets emissions limits specified under city’s ordinance.

The processing area is enclosed on five sides and the 30-foot high walls serve as a wind barrier, Marathon wrote. 

Installation of a roof on the coke pit, if feasible, would cost tens of millions of dollars, the company wrote in its application. It also could lead to unsafe conditions for Marathon workers. 

“The coke processing and handling system is already regulated and well controlled, and the installation of a total enclosure would provide little to no discernible change in emissions as compared to the existing coke handling system,” the company wrote in its variance application. 

Detroit's building department, in the Monday decision, noted that it received 77 letters opposed to the variance and none in support of it. There also were 192 comments posted on the city's website; 189 against the variance, two in favor and one other comment that was neutral. 

A public hearing was held in January over the consideration in which just over a dozen property owners attended.

Emma Lockridge, a longtime resident who lives just a few streets from the refinery, said the Monday decision proves there's "no more business as usual" in Detroit.

"I'm elated today because it means that we are going to start thinking about public health for real," she said. "In the most polluted ZIP code in Detroit, we have to start protecting citizens."

Marathon, in its argument for the variance, described the size and location of the process that generates petroleum coke but gave an "inadequate" statement about how there are no established neighborhoods within 2,000 feet, and provided that they have no visible emissions, "so their operation does not affect any location populations," Bell wrote.

They could not demonstrate the variance, if approved, would not create a public nuisance or adversely impact the surrounding area, environment or property uses, the decision said. 

Scott said Marathon's notification of property owners within 300 feet of its operation was "not sufficient" for air quality.

"We were hoping they would take a really good look at their community at-large and determine what impact, or lack thereof, their operation would have," he said. "We felt that was a major oversight on behalf of Marathon. When you are operating a petroleum plant, you need to consider your neighbors."