Former Michigan State Representative Rashida Tlaib had samples of petcoke dust tested for toxicity.
Dust, busted: Former Michigan State Representative Rashida Tlaib had samples of petcoke dust tested for toxicity. Bill Kubota/Detroit Public Television

Over industry objections, the city passed a new set of environmental regulations when residents complained about clouds of black petroleum-byproduct dust.

The story starts in 2013, when people in Windsor, Ontario, looked across the Detroit River and noticed big black piles of some kind of material along the shoreline south of downtown Detroit.

It turned out to be petroleum coke, or petcoke, a byproduct Canadian tar sands oil processed at the Marathon refinery in Southwest Detroit. The mountains of petcoke had been trucked in to be loaded onto freighters. Petcoke is used as a fuel, much of it exported and burned like coal in China and India.

Doug Hayes of the Canadian environmental group Windsor on Watch heard from a woman who lived in a riverfront apartment building complaining about black dust. Hayes said, “When we saw these piles we knew exactly what this was on this woman’s balcony.”

Then Hayes’ colleague Randy Emerson caused a stir with his phone camera.

Emerson happened to capture video when a gust of wind from a summer storm in July 2013 grabbed petcoke dust from the piles that covered the sky over the Detroit River. “The wind shifted,” Emerson said, “and that cloud actually came down [in] downtown Windsor here.” The video went viral.

That black cloud served as a particularly vivid illustration of a little-known environmental health issue—pollution via “fugitive dust,” the fine particulate matter generated by industry that isn’t emitted directly by smokestacks, but can still harm air quality. When Rashida Tlaib, then a Michigan State Representative, heard about petcoke dust problems on the U.S. side, she checked with state officials to see if it was harmful. “What we were told by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was, ‘Sorry—it’s not toxic,’” she said.

The MDEQ had determined the petcoke did not pose a health risk, but Tlaib wasn’t convinced, so she gathered her own samples for chemical analysis. Independent lab testing revealed her samples contained vanadium and selenium—both safe in small doses, but potentially dangerous if ingested in large amounts. The MDEQ would then say exposure to petcoke dust, as with other airborne particulates, could lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

Soon after, Detroit mayor Dave Bing stepped in and the petcoke piles were gone from the waterfront.

Around that time, Chicagoans saw petcoke make an appearance there. Windblown piles had been stacked along the Calumet River in the southeast part of the city, coming from a British Petroleum refinery just over the border in Indiana.The city quickly enacted an ordinance requiring petcoke be covered to control the dust.

Not so in Michigan. In Lansing, Tlaib, a Democrat, had taken her concerns to the state legislature. “All the experts I talked to, people in California, even in India, they all say you have to contain it in some sort of enclosed area,” she said.

Tlaib’s petcoke enclosure bill went nowhere. She had some bipartisan support from Detroit area legislators, but in a state with a GOP governor and Republican majorities in both houses, the bill had little chance for success.

Detroiter Raquel Castañeda-López learned about the dust when she was campaigning for a seat on the Detroit City Council. “I literally was door-knocking in that neighborhood when it was happening,” Castañeda-López said. “I remember people saying they could see the film, wipe their fingers along the sills and you would see this type of fine powder along their windows.”

Castañeda-López won the election and immediately started working on her own petcoke ordinance. It took four years. In late October 2017, Detroit City Council passed its fugitive dust ordinance by a vote of 7-2. “I’ve learned a lot about how long change takes,” Castañeda-López said, “especially when you are kind of pushing people outside their comfort zone.”

In Detroit, heaps of petcoke await export to places like China and India, where the tar-sands byproduct is burned like coal. (Stephen Boyle, FuzzyTek Images)

The ordinance requires petcoke and other coke-like materials to be held in enclosures, as well as regulating inspections of other possible fugitive dust sources from bulk storage facilities holding building materials. Castañeda-López said pushback came from business and labor leaders, and from the companies directly affected, all concerned about how it would hurt the economy and chase away jobs. “That industry just doesn’t want to be regulated,” she said, “so many times it’s just no, we should be exempt and we don’t think this is necessary.”

Among the opponents was the Michigan Aggregates Association, which represents bulk storage operations across the state. “This is precedent setting,” said Douglas Needham, who leads that group.  “We are an industry that is currently very heavily regulated, so this ordinance adds another layer of bureaucracy to that.” The aggregates involved in his industry, Needham says, are non-toxic and typically go into construction and roadbuilding. “We look at it like beach sand—the finest particles really are about as small as it comes on a beach. So although it may blow from the top of the pile to the side of the pile, it is not a particulate that is going to become airborne and float throughout the city.”

But Castañeda-López says that the ordinance was extensively researched and discussed with stakeholders, including bulk storage facilities, the Michigan Aggregates Association, environmental groups, the MDEQ, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Castañeda-López also consulted with Marathon Petroleum to see how the refinery dealt with petcoke. “We worked with them when we were drafting this legislation, to make sure that we learned from their wisdom in handling those materials.”

Law professor Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Detroit’s Wayne State University, sees the dust regulation as something of a milestone in local politics: a rare win for local environmentalists. Detroit has typically been an unwavering supporter of heavy industry as it emerged from bankruptcy. “Because of the lack of political will,” he said, “this is the first time an effective coalition has come together and produced a victory.”

Regarding the impact to local businesses, Hammer said, “You really have to ask what kind of economic development is going to happen in the neighborhoods,” he said. “There is a real danger that the kind of economic development you will attract will indeed be those that are the most polluting.”

Castañeda-López calls the ordinance “a first step” for a future, greener Detroit—one that’s less in thrall to the factories that once defined the city’s economic life. “It’s kind of changing the trajectory from solely relying on heavy industry to support our local economy and really towards diversifying. If we want to attract families to the city, if we want to make this a thriving city, and people are coming and feeling sick, or being impacted by that type of industry, it’s just not going to work out.”

This post originally appeared on Detroit Public Television’s One Detroit. See DPTV’s “MiWeek” report here.

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