A massive cloud of black dust that swept across the Detroit River into Windsor, Canada this week has been linked to piles of petroleum coke, a by-product of tar sands oil illegally stored in Detroit by Koch Carbon.
Though much has already been said of the tar sands oil industry, which is currently experiencing a boom and has spurred several high profile pipeline expansions across the US, the accumulation of the petroleum coke, commonly referred to as pet coke, along the Detroit riverfront went largely unnoticed until this week.
A dust cloud which flew over Detroit and into Windsor this week was found to carry elevated traces of lead, sulfur, zinc and vanadium, which is possibly cancer-causing in humans in prolonged or elevated exposure, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a France-based organization. The US Department of Health and Human Services and the US has not yet classified whether vanadium is carcinogenic.
Last Saturday evening Windsor resident Randy Emerson managed to capture a video of the thick black dust moving along the city’s waterfront.
“Is that the pet coke?” Emerson, who captured the scene on his cellphone, asked his wife.
“Oh my God,” he concluded. “Yep — that’s pet coke.”
In May the New York Times profiled the Detroit dumping grounds of pet coke at an industrial site owned by Koch Carbon, a company controlled by wealthy industrialists Charles and David Koch, which sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon by-product overseas in China and India where it serves as a cheaper, dirtier alternative to coal. There is also strong demand for the by-product in Latin America, where it is used in cement-making kilns.
The refining process known as coking releases oil from tar sands, and leaves petroleum coke as its by-product. According to the Times Canada currently has 79.8 million tons of pet coke stockpiled, most of which is dumped into open pits and ponds in Alberta, and the rest is simply piled up.
Marathon Petroleum’s refining plant in Detroit is currently processing some 28,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil, and the increase of oil sands into the US, including transportation through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, will also bring more of the coking processing and waste product to the US.
Coke is an ingredient in steel making and the production of aluminium, though according to a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services cited by the Times high sulfur content in this particular type of pet coke make it virtually unusable for those purposes.
It was only last November that exports of pet coke produced by Canadian oil sands began to arrive at the site, and seemed to catch local government off guard.
“Here’s a little bit of Alberta,” said Brian Masse, a Windsor’s parliament members in May. “For those that thought they were immune from the oil sands and the consequences of them, we’re now seeing up front and center that we’re not.”
According to Lorne Stockman, the author behind a recent study on petroleum coke, the waste is “the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth.”