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What is it about the Detroit riverfront that seems lately to invite the unpermitted bulk storage of industrial byproducts? With the still vivid memory of dust from 30 feet high petroleum coke piles blowing into people’s homes and businesses in Detroit and Windsor, residents were surprised last week to see another 30,000 ton mountain of waste along the West Jefferson waterfront.

The thick, black pile of material certainly looked like the petcoke of 2013. After some quick investigative work by Bridgewatch Detroit and others, we learned that the material is in fact “coke breeze,” a byproduct of the manufacturing of blast furnace coke used in the creation of iron ore pellets and injection carbon. Whereas petcoke is a byproduct of heavy crude oil refining, coke breeze is usually made from coal.

Coke breeze may be different in origin than petcoke, but it poses similar public health and environmental concerns. According to the Material Safety Data Sheet, coke breeze dust causes irritation to the eyes, lungs and respiratory tract and may lead to pulmonary disorders. People with chronic respiratory disorders like asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema may be adversely affected by any exposure to coke breeze. The American Lung Association reported in 2014 that Wayne County has the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in Michigan, and Detroit zip codes have three to six times higher asthma hospital admission rates than the state as a whole.

The company storing the coke breeze, Waterfront Terminal Holdings LLC, did not obtain a permit from the city of Detroit before piling it, in the open air, along the river. The Detroit Property Maintenance Division sent a corrective order, but did not levy a fine. The city is now requiring the company to follow a Fugitive Dust Control Plan and a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan. A fugitive dust plan is meant to keep dust from the coke breeze piles from blowing onto neighboring properties and causing a nuisance. That sounds like a good step, but we saw how ineffective the petcoke fugitive dust control measures were in 2013. Even after spraying the petcoke piles with an epoxy to limit dust, large dark plumes were regularly observed blowing off the storage site.

The banks of the Detroit River are not a dumping ground. Without a proper permit, the storage of industrial byproducts is akin to illegal dumping. Companies engaging in this illegal behavior should be subject to immediate fines and penalties. Industry is part of our proud heritage and industry will continue to be a big player in our city’s future. All we ask is that industry follows the laws designed to protect our health, safety and environment, and if they fail to do so, that the city and state hold them accountable.

Nick Schroeck, director

Transnational Environmental Law Clinic

Wayne State University Law School

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