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Coal byproduct piles on Detroit riverfront raise concerns

By Dave Battagello, The Windsor Star, October 15, 2015

Zug Island

Another black coke product being stored on the shores of the Detroit River is creating controversy.

More than 15,000 tons of coke breeze — a byproduct of coal — has been piled just west of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit in preparation for shipment by Waterfront Petroleum Terminal.

Residents of southwest Detroit and community leaders started raising concerns last week about the material since it looks similar to petroleum coke — an Alberta oil byproduct that ignited controversy in 2013 after being stored in four-storey piles along the river across from Windsor.

The property where the coke breeze is being stored is across the river from the foot of Brock Street and General Brock Public School on Windsor’s west side.

Coke breeze is finer than petcoke so residents were alarmed after photos of the piles were shared online.

petcoke breeze

Michigan Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) last week asked the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to investigate.

The agency said Tuesday it is the same coke breeze which has been stored on nearby Zug Island for decades without causing any major health or environmental issues.

The product is filtered from coal being used for blast furnaces in steel production on Zug Island, said Jeff Korniski, assistant district supervisor for Environmental Quality’s Detroit office.

Coke breeze can’t be used in the blast furnaces because its too small, so it is stored and shipped elsewhere to be used for such things as road and building materials.

Waterfront Petroleum Terminal has become a temporary home for coke breeze because of work being done on Zug Island, Korniski said.

The state agency has so far focused on whether there has been dust blowing from the piles, similar to what occurred in 2013 when petcoke blew across the river into Windsor. To date, there are no concerns, Korniski said.

However, Waterfront Petroleum Terminal was draining water run-off from the coke breeze pile directly into the Detroit River, he said. “Once we pointed out they cannot do that, the company stopped and have maintained it in a pond,”

A Windsor environmentalist says coke breeze is not much different than petcoke.

“It’s open-air storage is concerning, especially when you have Detroit trying to redevelop its core and waterfront,” said Derek Coronado of the Citizens Environment Alliance in Windsor.

Coal byproducts can potentially be toxic, he said. “There are a whole host of byproducts from coal and none of them are clean. Certainly they can have an impact on environmental contamination and human health.”

Derek Coronado

There are impurities in coke breeze, Korniski said. “But we have not observed the dramatic dust issues we saw with petcoke in 2013. As long as its contained sufficiently, there is little risk to the public. Also, it’s just temporary storage and it will be gone from the site in mid-November at the latest.”

The City of Detroit issued warnings to Waterfront Petroleum Terminal a couple of weeks ago because it started storing coke breeze two months ago without a permit. Beth Gotthelf, an attorney for the company, said it acquired a temporary permit Monday following lengthy meeting with city officials.

“This material is defined as an aggregate,” Gotthelf said. “Nobody has complained about dust or the smell because there is none. Somebody tweeted this was petcoke so we have had an uproar. But (Monday) was a very windy day and we had many news crews at the site and nothing was blowing around.”

The company has about 15,000 tons of the material on site with plans to bring in another 15,000 — enough to fill a ship which will then remove it.

State Rep. Chang said there are still too many unanswered questions.

“One of the documents indicates high volumes of exposure to this stuff can lead to pulmonary disease,” she said. “I want to see what (Environmental Quality’s) investigation says in writing. I don’t have anything from them yet. There are still unanswered questions on the potential health risks.”

Former state representative and community activist Rashida Tlaib is demanding a handful of coke breeze be given to her so she can have it independently tested.

“This is just disrespect for the community,” she said. “If it’s so safe, reach out to notify the public and community of what you are doing. They didn’t do that. You are talking about 30,000 tons of this stuff on the riverfront. Be transparent. That’s what they should have done from the start.”

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