Oily, environmentally toxic pyramid of greed being erected in Detroit by the Koch brothers

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of traveling along the Detroit River lately, there’s apparently a new landmark on the Motor City waterfront – a three-story tall pile of petroleum coke, which covers an entire city block. According to a report in today’s New York Times, we have libertarian industrialists Charles and David Koch to thank for the toxic eyesore. It would seem that they’ve decided to stockpile “the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth” in Detroit until such time that it can be sold to a country that doesn’t have a legitimate regulatory agency that polices power plant emissions. (That quote comes from Lorne Stockman, the author of a recent study on petroleum coke for the environmental organization Oil Change International.)

Petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the byproduct one is left with after processing oil sands, like those which are to be found in abundant supply in Canada. In this particular case, the oil sands have been brought from Alberta to be processed along the Detroit River, at a refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum. (The refinery has been active since 1930, but just began processing Canadian oil sands in November.) The Koch brothers, it would appear, have been purchasing the waste product, and stockpiling it in Detroit these past few weeks, right alongside the river from which we all drink, with the intention of eventually exporting it to a libertarian paradise like China, where, practically speaking, there don’t appear to be emissions standards. (On the open market, the material costs 25% less than coal, and generates up to 10% more CO2.)

To make matters worse, the waterside property just east of the Ambassador Bridge, where the coke is being stored, is owned by the most hated man in Detroit – billionaire slumlord Manuel (Matty) Moroun. (The Koch brothers, from what I’m told, also have a second site in Detroit, on the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority property, near the intersection of Clark and Fort.) I don’t know that I agree, as I think it has more to do with money than anything else, but some are speculating that this is Moroun’s way of getting even with the voters of Michigan, who recently decided that his Ambassador Bridge should have a publicly-owned competitor.

Here, by way of background, is a clip from the New York Times:

…An initial refining process known as coking, which releases the oil from the tarlike bitumen in the oil sands, also leaves the petroleum coke, of which Canada has 79.8 million tons stockpiled. Some is dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta. Much is just piled up there.

Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.

Marathon Petroleum’s plant in Detroit processes 28,000 barrels a day of the oil sands bitumen…

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said. “It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

The Keystone XL pipeline will provide Gulf Coast refineries with a steady supply of diluted bitumen from the oil sands. The plants on the coast, like the coking refineries concentrated in California to deal with that state’s heavy crude oil, are positioned to ship the waste to China or Mexico, where it is burned as a fuel. California exports about 128,000 barrels of petroleum coke a day, mainly to China…

So, the Koch brothers, who are among the most ardent global warming deniers in the country, are using Detroit as their temporary dumping ground for this filthy fuel, the use of which, according to experts, could make our current climate problem “unsolvable.” And, what’s more, according to Rashida Tlaib, the member of the Michigan House representing that part of Detroit where this coke is being stockpiled, “Nobody knew (it) was going to happen.” The Koch brothers, it would seem, began dumping the material in the City without so much as a word to those who live in the area… And apparently that’s OK. According to Andy Hartz, the southeast Michigan district supervisor with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the substance seems to fall into a regulatory gray area. Hartz told Michigan Radio yesterday that, “The DEQ does not have any kind of specific regulations that regulates this type of land use.” According to Hartz, “The product is a commodity. And because of that, it’s not a waste material.” (Hartz also said that the DEQ has been informed that the coke would be shipped out of Detroit once the ice on the Detroit River melts… which seems odd to me, given that we’ve had temperatures in the 70s these past few weeks. But who am I to question the climate science of the Koch brothers?)

It’s unknown what the environmental impact might be, but, according to the Detroit Free Press, Representatives Gary Peters and John Conyers have written to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, asking the agency to look into the coke’s potential impact on the river and residents. “We fear the storage of petroleum coke along the river poses a potential threat to water and air quality. The material may contain trace amounts of metal and could have damaging health impacts if fugitive dust enters the air. Petroleum coke that enters the water may continue to frustrate efforts to prevent contamination from runoff,” the Congressmen said in their letter.

According to the safety data sheet for petroleum coke, the material should not be allowed to contaminate ground water, and the U.S. Coast Guard and others should be notified immediately if runoff into waterways should occur. I suppose it’s possible that the Koch brothers and Matty Moroun have taken every precaution to ensure that such leakages don’t occur, but, given their histories, I don’t know that it’s likely, and, with a thunderstorm expected later tonight, I’m concerned that we may well see runoff into the Detroit River… But, on the plus side, it’s only Detroit, right? I mean, who really gives a fuck? It’s not like Koch brothers and their fellow 1-percenters are vacationing in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge, inhaling the fine carbon particulate over caviar finger sandwiches.

Having this stuff in Detroit, while disgusting, isn’t really what bothers me. What bothers me more is that wealthy American industrialists, knowing full well the ramifications in terms of human health and the environment, would be willing to ship this filthy fuel to the likes of China and Mexico, driving yet another nail into the coffin of humanity. But, really, I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Koch brothers. When have they ever demonstrated anything but the unfettered shock and awe of slash and burn capitalism in its purest form?

What’s worse, I’m sure this isn’t the end of it. I’m certain, if they had their way, they’d be able to burn petroleum coke without oversight here in the United States. (Some is burned in the U.S., but it’s use is policed to some extent.) And, given their success getting anti-union right-to-work legislation passed here in Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started here… Who wants to bet that we see something to that effect during the next lame duck session?

[note: The above image was created by our friend Ken Boyd in response to a comment left by Demetrius, suggesting that we take the opportunity to tie this story to our satirical Pure Michigan campaign.]

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  1. Posted May 19, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    According to another source, that I just found, petroleum coke gives off 53.6 percent more carbon dioxide than coal.

  2. John Galt
    Posted May 19, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    The only thing wrong about this story is that someone was allowed to photograph the petcoke. This is a private undertaking, and photography should be illegal. Also, in a perfect world, the Koch brothers, instead of paying trained professionals to deal with these materials, would be able to employ children and pay them with chicken nuggets. The bottom line is that we need more of this “outside the box” thinking when it comes to Detroit. We need to be business friendly. We need to open our doors to medical waste and radioactive materials. A giant mountain of glowing tumors would be a beacon to the free world that we’re ready for business, and willing to do whatever it takes.

  3. anonymous
    Posted May 19, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Only once we’ve blacked out the sun with tar sand byproduct will we truly know freedom.

  4. Elliott
    Posted May 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    The brothers Koch just took a dump on our front lawn.

  5. Meta
    Posted May 19, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Both your numbers concerning coal v. petcoke may be correct.

    From Reddit:

    “I don’t like that statistic that petcoke release an average 53.6% more carbon dioxide than coal. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s terrible, but petcoke isn’t THAT bad. Petcoke is far more energy rich than coal. Sure, you emit and average of 53.6% more CO2 /kg, but you get a hell of a lot more energy out of it than coal. Meaning you have to burn way more coal than you do petcoke to get the same amount of energy. Petcoke is only 5% more CO2 /j than coal. Sure, with every rock you get 53.6% more CO2, but in total you only get 5% more, and there also aren’t other nasty things you get from coal.”

  6. EOS
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    So Matty Moroun is the most hated man in Detroit. Really? Of all the scoundrels to choose from – he’s the worst?

  7. Edward
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    There are a lot of assholes in Detroit to be sure. I think Matty is the most widely known though. Kwame is probably right up there when it comes to evil SOBs who don’t give a damn about the city, but somehow he still has his fans. I don’t believe Matty has any. Is he as evil as the guy who stabbed the old man in the gas station a few days ago? Probably not. But if everyone in the city were polled and asked for their top three worst Detroiters he’d be on every list.

  8. karen
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    good for matty. give them hell.

  9. EOS
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    The guy grew up on the East side of Detroit, working in the two gas stations that his dad owned. He worked hard to make his fortune. Lives in Michigan and invests in Michigan. He owns several companies that employ a lot of people and owns properties that pay a large amount of taxes.

    That pile along the Detroit river is cheaper than coal and produces more energy when burned. Current technology is able to capture the sulfur that is released when burned. Beccause of it’s efficiencies, it reduces the CO2 levels when compared to that which would be released by burning sufficient coal to produce the same amount of energy. This pile of fuel will employ more persons at the refineries and trucking firms in the state. We should be thankful that Matty has chosen to invest in our state.

    Or we could hate him for being a successful businessman, whip up animosity against him, and get him to leave our state for a more congenial climate, taking his jobs and money elsewhere.

  10. Oliva
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    “Or we could hate him for being a successful businessman, whip up animosity against him, and get him to leave our state for a more congenial climate, taking his jobs and money elsewhere.”

    Good idea–because what good are jobs and money when people are getting sicker and dying and having children born with terrible disabilities, not to mention the environmental impact. (I don’t think anyone has to whip up animosity against him–seems he has done that very well himself.)

  11. EOS
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink


    Please educate me about this man. Everybody hated him before he put a pile next to the river. Why him and not all the other owners of corporations that use resources to make a personal profit?

  12. John Galt
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Just look at what Moroun has done with the train station and tell me that he’s not a hero? He’s the godfather of ruin porn. He spawned an industry! We should have parades in his honor.

  13. Demetrius
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    “Or we could hate him for being a successful businessman, whip up animosity against him, and get him to leave our state for a more congenial climate, taking his jobs and money elsewhere.”

    And the line between EOS and “John Galt” continues to blur …

  14. double anonymous
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Does anyone remember the story about the dead man frozen in the ice beneath the Detroit school book depository owned my MM? He doesn’t take care if his properties. He sits on them and allows them to rot. He’s the antithesis to someone like Dan Gilbert who is trying to build something downtown. It’s not that we hate successful business people. It’s that we hate soulless monsters who don’t give a shit about community.

  15. double anonymous
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    MMalso lied repeatedly about the proposed bridge between Detroit and Canada.

  16. Brainless
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    EOS won’t be happy until he has a Koch in his mouth.

  17. Oliva
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, double anonymous, for answering EOS a bit for me–I was gone most of the day. I’m surprised that EOS hadn’t heard about MM (not our MM!), so much press coverage for months and months re. the bridge, Proposal 6 in last election, how despised he has become, etc. But EOS’s question to me isn’t really a response to my comment, which is of course okay.

  18. AOL
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    “A chicken in every pot” has become “A Koch is every mouth”.

  19. K2
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Surely Donald Trumo is involved as well, and we’ve achieved the trifecta of douche baggery.

  20. Posted May 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I just want to thank John Galt. First, I saw a sign on someone’s lawn that said “Who IS John Galt” and thanks to you forcing me to Google it, I knew! Second, you always crack me up. Most of us on here are really funny but your writing has a special spark to it. Godspeed, my friend.

  21. svenjolly
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Did you miss the “what teacher would be stupid enough to spend money here?” sign.

  22. EOS
    Posted May 21, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink


    Of course I’ve heard of Matty Moroun before. I was interested in your thought process that led you to blaming him for “people are getting sicker and dying and having children born with terrible disabilities”. Was that a conclusion based only on what Mark posted here, or is there other evidence that makes your conclusion valid?

    Because he spent a lot of his money trying to prevent another bridge from being built, do we have a vested interest in villifying everything else he does? He claimed that it will cost the taxpayers a lot of money to build a new bridge. Many think that is a lie, but does anyone think that operating the bridge will be cost free? Will half the current revenue be sufficient to pay all the operating costs? Should we encourage him to leave our state? Or stop all investments? I haven’t done as much as he has to invest in our state. Can any reader here claim to have done more? Why do so many hate the successful capitalist?

  23. facebook stalker
    Posted May 21, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    The Detroit petcoke piles have their own Facebook page. Here’s the latest entry:

    “Photos taken at the entrance to the petcoke piles at Jefferson Ave/Rosa Parks and Fort St. There is a public fishing area frequented daily. Those fish are slightly upstream from the toxic stormwater which would pour into the river when it rains. They claim vacuuming of the water before it goes into the Detroit River is being done, but can you even think of what it must be like to vacuum rain as it is coming down? Detroit – we are being poisoned. It is time to rally together, build our cases, gather baseline medical blood-work for residents, ask independent inspectors for air-quality sniffings, and attend public gatherings as we announce them through the page.”


  24. Oliva
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    EOS, your last line is provocative: “Why do so many hate the successful capitalist?” Don’t have much time but will quickly respond by mentioning things like legislative priorities, corporate welfare, free market capitalism vs. the system we have, the dangers and impossibility of enacting this theoretical free market capitalism anyway, the deep (cellular?) tradition of social democracy so many American immigrants brought with them and passed along to their offspring and beyond vs. the myth of rugged individualism that helps prop up this pretend free market capitalism . . . and therefore these pretend capitalists. Business owners, yes; entrepreneurs, right on . . . but the pretend capitalists, or capitalists in name only, sure do rely on the rest of us for their success. Roads, workers, knowhow, consumers . . .

    And then there’s the whole huge area of environmental justice/safety. If we could come together to protect ourselves, each other, our rivers, our Earth, instead of defending pretty obviously shoddy activity and greed and calling it capitalist success, oh, what a better country we’d have.

  25. EOS
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink



    I’ve read your post 10 times and still fail to grasp your thought process.

    legislative priorities – are the fault of legislators,not businessmen

    corporate welfare – see above

    free market capitalism vs. the system we have – I agree we don’t have a free market system, but think it would be far better if we had

    the dangers and impossibility of enacting this theoretical free market capitalism – ?

    tradition of social democracy so many American immigrants brought with them – that so many escaped from so that they could succeed in our system

    the myth of rugged individualism – not a myth, used to be a shared ideal

    pretend capitalists – ? not a clue what you mean

    the whole huge area of environmental justice/safety – read scientific data sheets above. Pet coke is 99% carbon. Carbon is a constituent of every cell in your body. On a scale of 0 to 4 as a health hazard it is a zero, the least hazardous.

  26. Oliva
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    EOS, Will you tell where your foreign-born forebears came to the USA from and roughly when?

  27. EOS
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    My grandparents came from England in the 1920’s where my family’s roots go back only 70 years or so. They had left Ireland during the potato famine. I am a second generation American.

  28. Oliva
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for answering–was curious. Grandparents on both sides? (I, too, have an Irish side.)

    I know many Americans’ forebears didn’t come here by choice, and some came to avoid being killed, but plenty of that segments’ compatriots went to other countries as well, so it was less coming toward (and definitely not about a so-called American dream) but a fleeing from, as humans have been doing for a very long time. Not that people haven’t come for the so-called dream. It’s a beloved narrative, and I’d be proud of this country if it would live up to the narrative in our time and do much better at supporting those already here who are struggling and living daily nightmares.

  29. Posted May 23, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    svenjolly, not following you…the sign was on someone’s lawn, not a shop. And no, I wouldn’t be stupid enough.

  30. Oliva
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    from an interview with Patti Smith in the UK Guardian, 24 May 2013:

    “It’s just like the pharaohs. To me the Bible gives the best example: they were the pharaohs, they were the high kings, they had all of the wealth and all of the power, but when the plague came, the plague knows not pharaohs. The sons and daughters of poor people died of the plague, and the sons and daughters of the pharaohs died of the plague. So when Mother Nature gets sick of us stuffing her with all our chemical excrement and starts erupting on us, she’s not going to just destroy the poor people on the fringes: everyone will go.”

  31. Tom Oakley
    Posted July 3, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    There must still be ice on the Detroit River because, as of a few minutes ago, these mountains of filth were still there.

  32. kaufen
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve found that it’s much less objectionable if I think of the huge black masses as piles of women’s knickers.

  33. Posted July 15, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    While we wait for the Detroit River to thaw, so that the Koch brothers can move the massive piles of pet coke out of the city, it looks as though the black tar sand residue is beginning to blow into the homes of those folks living around the site.

  34. Detroit's Pet Coke
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Here is info put together and shared by our representative Rashida Tlaib

    Fact Gathering/Testing:

    We are asking all residents to please call Jeff Korniski at Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) at 313 456 4681 to make any complaint about pet coke dust or odors. In addition you can also ask Jeff at MDEQ to test your home for contamination AS WELL as email Jeff Gearhart at jeffg@ecocenter.org who also wants to test homes. The Ecology Center is a nonprofit organization that is very interested in helping with this issue and will create a map of all the locations near the piles that were confirmed for pet coke contamination.

  35. Meta
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    A good turn of events:

    Detroit Bulk Storage has been denied a permit by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to store petcoke on the banks of the Detroit River. As you may recall, they were storing giant piles of the toxic byproduct of tar sands oil refining by Koch Carbon, an energy company owned by the billionaire Koch brothers. Last year, the piles were moved elsewhere after giant clouds of billowing petcoke dust filled the air in Detroit.

    Read more:

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