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Petroleum Coke Piles On Detroit River Should Be Investigated, Urges Congressman Gary Peters

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As three-story-high piles of petroleum coke pile up along the Detroit River, Congressman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) unsuccessfully urged his colleagues in the U.S. House on Wednesday to reject a measure expediting the permit approval for the Keystone Pipeline, and instead investigate the health and environmental implications of coking byproducts.

The House approved a rule that will allow them to vote Thursday on a bill that would remove the need for a presidential permit or environmental studies before constructing the northern part of the controversial project, The Hill reports. The proposed Keystone Pipeline would transport Canadian tar sands oil to be refined in the United States.

Advocates of the Keystone pipeline say it would create jobs and help encourage energy independence for the United States. Peters, however, is concerned about a waste product known as petroleum coke or pet coke, created through the process of refining the oil. He has already offered an amendment to study the potential air and water contamination from pet coke, but it was blocked from inclusion in a larger bill. On the House floor Wednesday, he asked his fellow members of Congress to take a second look at the amendment.

Although the pipeline's proposed route from Alberta, Canada to Texas wouldn't pass through Michigan, the issue hits close to home for Peters and his Detroit constituents. A refinery owned by Marathon Oil in the city processes tar sands heavy crude oil. The facility handles about 28,000 barrels of oil sands bitumen daily, according to the New York Times.

In recent months, enormous mounds of pet coke generated by the plant have been growing along the river in Southwest Detroit. In his speech, Peters argued that allowing the Keystone pipeline project to go forward would lead to more petroleum waste products and that a study would benefit other "communities who may become hosts to their own piles of petcoke."

"We've already seen the impact of tar sands oil in my district. Piles of petroleum coke three stories tall and a city block wide are sitting on the banks of the Detroit River," he said. "In Detroit it often sits uncovered and uncontained waiting to blow into air and water. These piles of petroleum coke are a blight on our communities and could pose a threat to the environment and public health."

See video of the pet coke piles:

The piles are owned by a company controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy brothers who have bankrolled conservative causes including groups that deny humans' role in global warming. They contracted with Detroit Bulk Storage to handle the piles, according to Michigan Radio, and they sell the carbon waste product from Canada's oil sands overseas, the New York Times reports.

The Marathon refinery, which recently underwent a $2.2 billion expansion that allows them to process the Canadian oil sand exports, began producing the pet coke waste in November.

Peters, along with his colleague John Conyers (D-Detroit) expressed concerns to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality after the pet coke piles became an issue earlier this year, but the agency determined the material isn't hazardous to humans or fish populations.

Conyers and Peters have followed up with MDEQ to determine if Detroit Bulk Storage is following proper procedures for coke storage.

"What we’re trying to do is establish the fact that Detroit should not be a dumping ground for these corporations,” Conyers told MLive. "We’ll plan to push the DEQ as far as we can to make sure that any threat to Detroit citizens is not only discovered but eliminated as well.”

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) was also dissatisfied with the MDEQ's findings. She collected samples for independent testing and is concerned about the potential for polluted stormwater to flow into the Detroit River, although DEQ Water Resources Division spokesman Andrew Hartz told the Detroit News last week that the piles are being managed to prevent that sort of runoff.

"The piles are higher than before," Tlaib told The Huffington Post last month. "With the increase of rain, I have no idea how anyone could argue that pet coke on the banks of the Detroit River is safe."

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