Environmental concerns raised
over massive black pile
It started out as a blemish on the Detroit riverfront, but during the past several weeks has mushroomed into a massive black mound.
Mar 05, 2013 - 4:35 PM EST
Last Updated: Mar 06, 2013 - 6:40 AM EST
The pile of what was first thought to be coal has triggered environmental concerns on this side of the river — it has reached at least four stories in height and is a few hundred metres in length along the riverfront east of the Ambassador Bridge.
“I worry that whatever it is could have dust blowing over,” said Ruth Germain, who lives downwind in Portofino condominium on Riverside Drive West. “I worry that it’s a health issue — for the air and the water.”
Germain says a film of black dust routinely settles on her condo’s patio, “but since they have been putting that stuff there, it’s become much worse.
“Whatever it is can not be healthy.”
The property where the black pile is located is owned by Michigan billionaire businessman and Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.
But bridge company president Dan Stamper said the property — purchased around 2005 – is leased by a railway company and its affiliates.
“It’s not us,” Stamper said. “There are others with a lease on the property and we are not sure they are allowed to do what they are doing.
“We have our real estate folks looking into it. We are asking what are they doing — and under what authority are they doing it?”
Several phone calls by The Star and a visit to the site Tuesday determined the mystery mound of black material is a petroleum coke product filtered out of crude oil by nearby Marathon Oil refinery.
It is a black powder which can be resold for other uses, said Brandon Daniels, spokesman for Marathon Oil.
“A third-party has been purchasing coke from our facility and I believe has been stockpiling it there,” he said. “Once it has left our facility, I cannot confirm the customer’s plans or intended use for the product. That’s their prerogative.”
The coke is not toxic, he said.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said it was not aware of the massive black pile until this week, but confirmed Tuesday it is not necessarily a dangerous material.
“It can be sold as it does have a combustion value to someone,” said Andy Hartz, southeast Michigan district coordinator for MDEQ. “It’s storage is not something that requires a permit from us. It is listed as a non-hazardous substance by the federal government.”
But the coke product is subject to any (blowing) dust regulations and controls to prevent runoff into the river, he said.
“If there is a physical discharge into the river we will follow up,” Hartz said. “If there are dust issues that exceed (regulatory) limits, that is something we would engage them on.”
The company on the Detroit riverfront storing the coke product is Transflo — a division of CSX railway. A lone secretary inside a small office said Tuesday her boss was out-of-town and not available.
There have long been past problems with storing coal piles on the Detroit riverfront, largely by U.S. Steel, said Derek Coronado of the Citizens Environment Alliance in Windsor.
“When you industrialize the waterfront this is the kind of craziness you get,” he said. “It’s a crazy thing to store something like this right out in the open and so close to the water.
“In terms of visual impact, it’s quite stunning. The river in that location is not that wide. The narrowest point of the river is at the Ambassador Bridge. There is a potential for a transboundary (pollution) issue.”
Coronado said the dismal financial state of the City of Detroit means it cannot properly monitor industrial sites or deal with environmental violations.
“That you have something like this with a potential of creating environmental issues happening right in plain sight is not the way it’s supposed to work,” he said. “With Detroit spiralling down financially, it seems to be a free-for-all. Unless the state (government) steps up on something like this, I don’t see who else would over there.”
MP Brian Masse (NDP — Windsor West) said a Windsor resident has filed a complaint with Environment Canada.
Anyone on this side of the river concerned about the pile is urged to contact his office and they will be steered in the proper direction, Masse said.
Masse has also contacted the International Joint Commission which is responsible for protecting the Detroit River.
Masse said property owner Moroun should ultimately be held responsible.
“If he is leasing out the property in such a manner where this is going to continue, hopefully he would address it responsibly,” he said. “Otherwise, it could be yet another public relations disaster on his hands.”