The dirty view from Windsor: Canada's petcoke problem

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There's a perverse irony at play in Windsorites' protests against the petcoke piles on neighbouring Detroit's shores.

For years, residents downwind from dirty coal-fired plants in Michigan and other Midwestern U.S. centres have been breathing nasty transboundary air pollution -- including the burning of petroleum coke, also known by its nickname 'petcoke'.

Today, the view from the ground across the Detroit River reveals how Canadians have returned the favour in the three piles of petcoke which have appeared this year. The waste byproduct of refining Alberta bitumen has been called "the dirtiest of dirty fuels" by Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International, a Washington-based oil industry watchdog.

The three-storey-tall piles are stored just metres from the Detroit River in full view of Windsor's spacious, open riverfront and near poor, predominantly black communities in southwest Detroit.

They are, as protesters in a Windsor-Detroit Pots and Pans Joint Action on June 25 repeated, "tar sands poop." And they're creating a shitstorm of controversy -- and fightback -- from both Canadians and Americans.


Cross-country collaboration

Environmentalists, labour, youth, social justice groups, Idle No More and Occupy protesters have banded together against the petcoke piles through Windsor On Watch (WOW), a non-profit organization which tries to "create awareness of environmental problems and solutions through ongoing acts of creative contention and community events," according to its Facebook page. And WOW has reached out across the river to environmentalists and social justice advocates in Detroit, to take joint action.

WOW organizers and Rhonda Anderson of the Sierra Club of Detroit's National Environmental Justice and Community Partnership Program say the joint cross-country environmental collaboration may have been a first and they vow it won't be the last. WOW is planning to meet with Anderson to plan future actions.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, protesters have ramped up their action, blocking trucks from dumping petcoke from a $2.2-billion upgraded Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery south of Detroit and stored mostly on industrial lands owned by Ambassador Bridge owner and billionaire Matty Moroun.

There have been the petcoke pooh-poohers, of course. Jan Ciborowski of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) at the University of Windsor told CBC news on March 12 that the piles are "relatively non-toxic" and "not a hazardous substance." His website also reveals his joint research work with seven sponsoring partner companies in the oil sands industry. Meanwhile, his colleague at GLIER, Doug Haffner, a Senior Canada Research Chair in Great Lakes Research, told the Windsor Star, "You couldn't put this in a worse place."

Chris Vander Doelen, a right-wing columnist with the Windsor Star, has called petcoke harmless and belittled the protests as the work of a Windsor resident peeved at seeing the piles from her condo balcony. He sides squarely on the side of jobs and the 'economy' that the petcoke piles represent in the booming tar sands industry.

Labour activists join the fight

Labour activists who are fighting the petcoke piles aren't apologizing for their actions. Mark Bartlett, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Windsor Regional Environment Council, told WOW at a recent meeting that labour does not believe in trading off the environment for jobs, just as it settled the health and safety versus jobs argument long ago.

And in a speech at City University in New York, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union president David Coles recognized the harm posed by Alberta's bitumen sands development and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline despite the 35,000 CEP members whose livelihoods depend on the oil and gas industries.

"I have been arrested in the fight against Keystone XL because our union understands that this pipeline is bad for both the environment and Canadian workers," Coles said.

What's interesting about the fight against the petcoke piles in Windsor-Detroit is that it isn't a case of NIMBYism -- Not In My Back Yard. Protesters are acutely aware that the petcoke piles should not be moved to become someone else's problem. They also recognize that they symbolize a much bigger environmental problem that affects all of us.

The Sierra Club's Anderson, a woman of colour, calls it a race issue and says the people of southwest Detroit are considered "expendable."

WOW reminds us that the petcoke piles were building up just as the earth crossed into a new, dangerous threshold: in May, the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide exceeded 400 parts per million, well above the 315 level first measured in 1958 and the 350 that's considered safe, according to

A reminder of Canada's complicity

While the world reels at continuing extreme weather-related events like the recent Alberta floods, the petcoke protests are a reminder of Canada's complicity in the problem through its tar sands oil production.

Tar sands bitumen processing produces up to five times the greenhouse gas emissions over conventional crude oil. The water produced by this process is toxic. The pipelines that transport the diluted bitumen, also known by the cute and cuddly label 'dilbit', are under higher pressure and prone to breaks and spills which are more toxic than conventional oil disasters. Canadian tar sands have been called the most destructive project on earth.

And the poop they produce -- petcoke -- produces over 50 per cent more CO2 than a ton of coal, according to Oil Change International, which challenges the fossil fuel industry's propaganda.

The full environmental impact of bitumen extraction is still being examined as petcoke emerges as a major concern. Opponents are focusing on containment strategies, pointing to California as one state that took action by introducing legislation in 2002 leading to the construction of a $7.5-million storage barn at Los Angeles Export Terminal. In Detroit, Michigan State Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) introduced legislation for safe storage and transportation of the petcoke piles inside enclosed structures and vehicles to protect residents' health and safety and avoid polluting Michigan's waterways.

"From my point (of view) there is no safe way to store the petcoke," said the Sierra Club's Rhonda Anderson, who is also a member of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

Anderson is aware of the different options being proposed -- building a shelter, putting something over the piles and keeping it far away from people -- but isn't sold on any of them. "It's almost like nuclear waste. It's just too damn toxic."

But getting rid of petcoke is another matter. While researchers such as the University of Alberta's Canadian Centre for Clean Coal/Carbon and Mineral Processing Technologies are looking at "co-gasification of coal with pet-coke and biomass" as a "more sustainable option as it is economical, environmentally friendly," environmentalists are wary of burning. They agree that burning Detroit's high-sulfur petcoke in coal-fired power stations in Nova Scotia is harmful to the environment. Exporting it to places like China where there are lax pollution standards is worse, the Delaware Sierra Club argues.

And as Green Party leader Elizabeth May has noted, the fact that it's 25 per cent cheaper than coal creates a much greater threat to our survival as a species because burning petcoke could produce 26 megatonnes of CO2 per year in the Alberta oil sands alone. Oil Change International says Keystone alone would produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2.

All of which makes the view from Windsor that much bigger, blacker and bleaker.

Claudio D'Andrea has written for newspapers and magazines both in Ontario and B.C. for more than 25 years. He is based in Windsor, Ontario and is recording secretary of the CAW Windsor Regional Environment Council.

Photo: Stephen Boyle/flickr

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