How Did The Koch Brothers Get Away With Polluting Detroit?

“The dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth" lining Detroit shores…courtesy of the Koch Borothers. Photo: Fabrizio Costantini @TheNYTimes

“The dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth” now lining the Detroit shoreline…courtesy of the Koch Borothers. Photo: Fabrizio Costantini @TheNYTimes

In six months time, Detroit, Michigan has gained an ugly, dirty black mountain that is a city block long and three stories high — much to the city’s surprise. Windsor, Ontario is none too happy about it, either, since the mess lines the riverbank and mars the view from their side of the river. The mountain is made up of petcoke, described by researcher Lorne Stockman as “the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth.” 

Where did the residue come from? That would be Canadian tar sands. Last November, a riverside refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum began refining the oil from Canadian imports of tar sands bitumen. The initial step in the refinery process extracts the oil but leaves behind the waste byproduct known as petroleum coke, or petcoke. Petcoke is like coal, but even dirtier than the low-grade stuff. When burned, it’s too high in carbon emissions to be used in the U.S., so the byproduct is sold and distributed as fuel to other countries that aren’t so particular about air quality, like China and Mexico.

Who buys and distributes it? That would be the notorious Charles and David Koch and their company, Koch Carbon. Dirty energy is a family affair. A third brother, William, is the CEO of the Oxbow Corporation, a company which describes itself as “the largest distributor of petroleum coke in the world.”

So Detroit’s new black mountain is the property of the Koch brothers, who bought it from the refinery. Essentially, they’ve used Detroit as the dumping ground for their store of petcoke until it can be shipped overseas. According to the New York Times, the state representative for the area, Rashida Tlaib, said:

“What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground. Nobody knew this was going to happen.”

A big black mountain of waste product appears on the riverbank and nobody knew it was going to happen? Nobody but the Koch brothers, that is.

Other parts of the country that are pushing to transport tar sands oil ought to take a trip to Detroit and look at the very obvious consequence of the refinery business. According to a report by Lorne Stockman, there are 59 U.S. refineries that are capable of producing petcoke, nine of them near the southern terminus of the Keystone XL pipeline. Is the country ready for big black mountains of waste products to line the Gulf Coast? Is Whiting, Indiana ready? Because that’s where British Petroleum has decided to build the “second largest” coke refinery in the country, in order to take advantage of the Canadian tar sands bitumen.

No one knows just how big an environmental problem the presence of piled-up petcoke poses. It certainly hasn’t been counted as part of the impact of tar sands because it’s a byproduct of oil production, rather than the end product. In his January report, Stockman wrote:

“To date, the impacts of petcoke on the local and global environment have not been considered by regulatory bodies in assessing the impacts of the tar sands.”

However, he states that, as a fuel, petcoke releases an average of 53.6 percent more carbon dioxide than coal. Fifteen to 30 percent of tar sands bitumen ends up as petcoke. Because it is priced much lower than coal, other countries are eager to buy it. U.S. refineries will be eager to produce it, and U.S. communities will become the storehouse.

Canada already has its own stockpile of 79.8 million tons of the stuff. According to the New York Times story:

“Some is dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta. Much is just piled up there.”

That’s the new American landscape we can look forward to unless the communities at risk wake up to the dangers. Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario are searching for solutions to the phenomenon together. Rhonda Anderson of the Sierra Club in Detroit, said:

“Those piles kind of hit us upside to the head. But it also triggered a kind of relationship between Canada and the United States that’s allowed us to work together.”

Surely, the combined forces of the U.S. and Canada can figure out how to deal with the Koch brothers and their “PetKoch.” Can’t they?

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