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The Petroleum Coke Problem

A couple months ago, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing ordered the removal of huge piles of petroleum coke, a by-product of refining tar sands oil into gasoline and other products, from land along the Detroit River. Now the same problem is growing in the Chicago area where refineries are producing even larger amounts of the stuff.

Petroleum coke, a byproduct of tar sands refining, is building up along Chicago’s Calumet River and alarming residents, reportedMidwest Energy News.

Petroleum coke is a high-carbon, high-sulfur byproduct of Canadian tar sands that are shipped from Alberta to the U.S. to be refined and is rapidly becoming a cause for concern in Chicago. “It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Southeast Environmental Task Force member Tom Shepherd, told Midwest Energy News. “It’s coming at a breathtaking rate.”

The pet coke is owned by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch whose operations drew similar outrage from residents and elected officials in Detroit earlier this year. In July, a large black cloud of pet coke dust was spotted over the Detroit River and caught on camera by residents across the border in Windsor. Members of the communities in close proximity to the piles were complaining of respiratory problems as the thick, black dust was blowing off the piles and into their apartments…

Detroit’s pet coke piles were produced by Marathon Refinery but owned by Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. In Chicago they are owned by KCBX, an affiliate of Koch Carbon, which has large parcels of land along the Calumet River and, according to Midwest Energy News, expanded its presence in the area last year. And it’s not just the Koch piles area residents have to worry about; just across the border in Indiana, BP Whiting’s refinery is undergoing a $3.8 billion upgrade which includes construction of the world’s second largest coker.

The Whiting refinery is owned by BP. In 2007, that refinery was given permission by state and federal agencies to increase the amount of ammonia and sludge it can dump into Lake Michigan. It now dumps 54% more ammonia and 35% more sludge into the lake. That new permit also allowed them to increase the amount of mercury it releases into the lake to 20 times the legal limit. And the more tar sands oil is refined rather than conventional crude, the higher the concentration of heavy metals and toxic substances like mercury will be released.

Add to this the problem with coal ash, a byproduct of producing energy by burning coal. We produce about 140 million tons of it every year. In Tennessee in 2008, 1.1 billion — yes billion — gallons of coal ash slurry leaked from a containment pond, polluting two rivers and destroying 300 acres of property. The health effects will be serious and are likely to last decades at the very least.

Things like this are why I think we need to launch a TVA-level project to develop next-generation renewable energy sources. Even if someone thinks global warming is a big hoax, reducing and eventually eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels to produce energy will dramatically boost public health in innumerable ways and is better for us on nearly every count.

Comments

  1. Doug Little says

    Even if someone thinks global warming is a big hoax, reducing and eventually eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels to produce energy will dramatically boost public health in innumerable ways and is better for us on nearly every count.

    Try convincing half the country that big money interests DON’T have their best interests at heart.

  2. Doug Little says

    Trebuchet @2,

    That and the IPCC is some sort of global conspiracy to bankrupt ‘merica.

    I’ve also been hearing a lot of goal posts scraping along the ground from the denier scene, in that now they are hammering the,

    Well if it is happening what can we possibly do we do about it?… China and India 11!1.

    line of argumentation.

  3. bcreason says

    It’s time to start promoting the new safe nuclear technologies that are being developed. Renewables are fine but they are not reliable. Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and sometimes the Sun doesn’t shine. Only nuclear and in some cases hydro can produce pollution free constant base line power.

    The new proposed thorium technologies either produce less waste or actually consume waste from older reactors.

  4. sumdum says

    They’re simply dumping that stuff in the lake? It sounds like something out of a movie with a dystopian future.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    Once the XL pipeline gets built, they can use that pet coke to build the levees higher around the Gulf of Mexico.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    The pet coke is owned by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch …

    Treat it the way we treat the rest of the Koch-owned pollution: send it to Congress.

  7. Michael Heath says

    sumdum writes:

    They’re simply dumping that stuff in the lake? It sounds like something out of a movie with a dystopian future.

    I’ve evolved my politics to essentially having only one political priority; public policies and the execution of those policies which maximize economic growth in the short-, intermediate-, and long-term. I’ve increasingly concluded, especially over the paste couple of years, that the tasks needed to execute this approach as a priority pretty much solves all the other issues we liberals and moderates care about. Especially given the observations that optimal economic growth can’t happen in an environment with a relatively large amount of social and income inequality.

    The state of Michigan and other entities surrounding the Great Lakes, like all regions, have competitive disadvantages compared to other regions. However we also have a few advantages that distinguish us from nearly all other regions. One is massive amount of fresh water contained within the Great Lakes, in a world where the value of fresh water becomes ever more precious and in a world where the current infrastructure and distribution of people presumes a supply of water that’s shrinking. That’s opening up new opportunities for the Great Lake region. And yet this is how we treat one of the few things that makes us special.

  8. says

    @bcreason – “It’s time to start promoting the new safe nuclear technologies that are being developed.”

    There is no such thing as “safe nuclear technologies.” Nuclear fission — the technology that uses the decay of very heavy elements such as uranium and thorium into lighter elements — results in radioactive substances that remain dangerous for decades, centuries, millennia, and even longer in some cases (iodine-129, which makes up a significant portion of uranium fission waste, has a half life of 15.7 million years; neptunium-237, found in smaller quantities, has a half-life of 2 million years.) Thorium based reactors have less dangerous by-products, but even those have storage requirements that measure in the thousands of years. Also, many of these heavy elements are chemically toxic in and of themselves, even if you discount their radioactivity. Then there is the problem that the infrastructure of a nuclear fission plant — the concrete used in the foundations, containment ponds and buildings, the iron struts, the copper wires, the metal, glass and plastic used to make the monitoring equipment — are bombarded with neutrons and become contaminated. This low level waste will release these extra neutrons over decades and centuries, creating a significant mutagenic effect that poses a threat to every form of terrestrial life. And when you look at the consequences of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukashima, you will see that an accident at a fission power plant pose far, FAR more danger than the same accident at a non-nuclear plant.

  9. says

    I see the Koch Brothers are still doing their best to make Randolph and Mortimer Duke look like humanitarians. If this is what they can get away with under the oppressive, job-killing boot of the EPA, imagine what they would do if they ever succeeded in turning America in their idea of a libertarian paradise.

  10. caseloweraz says

    “It’s coming at a breathtaking rate,” he said.

    True that.

    Those piles of petroleum coke
    Are causing our people to choke
    Please take them away
    And then you can say
    You’re not addicted to Koch.

  11. caseloweraz says

    @Gregory in Seattle:

    I would modify that statement a little: There’s no such thing as “completely safe” nuclear fission technology, true — just as there’s no such thing as completely safe air travel, or a completely safe medicine. The criterion applied should be whether the technology is adequately safe. In my opinion, current reactor designs are not adequately safe, even though they’ve done pretty well overall. (I think luck has played as much a part in that success as skill. Consider Davis-Besse.)

    I believe the new, so-called “Gen IV” designs might prove to be adequately safe. But we won’t know until we actually build some prototypes and test them.

  12. says

    Even if someone thinks global warming is a big hoax, reducing and eventually eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels to produce energy will dramatically boost public health in innumerable ways and is better for us on nearly every count.

    The people who think global warming is a hoax don’t care about any of that. The whole point of believing that global warming is a hoax is to rationalize greed and indifference to others. I believe there are exactly zero people who think that global warming is a conspiracy but happily agree that we should phase out fossil fuels for all those other reasons.

  13. bcreason says

    Pebble Bed is just one of many new designs.

    I like the LFTR. (Liquid Floride Thorium Reactor) The fuel is a molten salt that circulates through the core. You can refuel it without shutting it down by simply draining some existing fuel and adding new.

    In the event of a meltdown the fuel drains off to underground storage tanks and the reaction stops. No power is required to shutdown the reactor and pump cooling water to the core. It all works on gravity.

  14. freehand says

    bcreason, why do you think renewables are not reliable? I’m pretty sure the sun will shine for some time to come, and wind is only going to get stronger during climate change. Sure, they’re not rock steady, but that’s what smart grids and energy storage are for. The technology is proven, wind is at parity with current prices and solar nearly so. Established hydro is mostly good, but rivers are drying up.

    Nuclear tech is expensive, toxic, and centralized. Not only will they require the Koch brothers or someone like them to control and profit from them, but they are also subject to terrorist attacks and local disasters. And they are not renewable; at best they would be a stop gap measure.

    It would be hard to take down US energy if most of the power were coming from small wind farms or people’s rooftops. One percent of US land area installed with wind or solar would provide the energy we are currently using.

  15. freehand says

    bcreason, are there any LFTR reactors in operation? It sounds good on paper, but so do flying cars and jet packs. Solar and wind are available now, work, are very safe, and are financially justifiable. We don’t have time to develop high tech that’s not yet got all the bugs worked out. Perhaps you should encourage work on them, but they’re not the answer to our immediate problems.*

    * Number one problem is sociopaths in power. You have a solution for them?

  16. says

    I’ve got nothing against nuclear power, but it’s rather expensive, and with the price of solar PV dropping exponentially, it’s hard to imagine that nuclear can possibly be cost-competitive. I don’t know what people’s obsession with nuclear is. Fifteen or 20 years ago I would have been happy to start building next generation nuclear plants and removing coal plants in the process, but today we’ll get a lot more bang for the buck with aggressive deployment of solar and wind.

  17. Ichthyic says

    Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and sometimes the Sun doesn’t shine.

    which implies what one should do is build power storage devices.

    …and what a shocker, that’s exactly what many states that are engaging in renewable energy ARE doing.

    you fail in your understanding of what is needed to deal with power infrastructure issues.

    goodbye.

  18. Ichthyic says

    Knowing the Koch bros, they will figure out a way to grind up their coal coke, and use it as an ingredient in soft drinks, then sell the recipe to the Coca Cola company.

    …and call it Koch Coke.

  19. greg1466 says

    In 2007, that refinery was given permission by state and federal agencies to increase the amount of ammonia and sludge it can dump into Lake Michigan.

    What strikes me the most about this statement is the fact that they are allowed to dump ammonia and sludge into the lake at all, let alone increase it.

  20. Doug Little says

    It sounds good on paper, but so do flying cars and jet packs

    No those don’t even sound good on paper, they sound downright dangerous.

    at best they would be a stop gap measure

    Yes, exactly that would be the plan until we can get the infrastructure built to take advantage of renewables. BTW nuclear doesn’t necessarily need to centralized, a lot of the Gen IV designs can be made modular, and passively safe.

    Generation IV Nuclear Reactors

    I also wish there was more of an effort to pump money into fusion research worldwide.

  21. bcreason says

    freehand
    I have a close relative that works in solar energy. Even he say’s if it wasn’t for heavy government subsidies it just wouldn’t be cost effective. This is for panels connected straight to the grid with no storage. It’s much more expensive to store electricity.

    Plus these technologies are hard on the grid. Every time a cloud passes over the Sun power drops and the grid has to adjust.

    Something people forget is that in 30 years we will have millions of electric vehicles on the grid. We need many times the current generation capacity to feed all those cars.

    Thorium is very common compared to uranium and the new designs are much more efficient and can actually “burn” waste products from older reactors. All this means that our nuclear “stop gap” will last us a thousand years.

  22. dingojack says

    Petroleum Coke?
    Sounds revolting. They’ll probably just go back to the original flavour, like they did last time they tried a ‘new and improved’ flavour – oh wait now…
    :) Dingo

  23. freehand says

    bcreason – coal, oil, and nuclear are very heavily subsidized. For instance – if I understand this correctly – any nuclear disasters are not covered by the owners of the power plant, but by the government, meaning us. Look at how the BP oil spill was handled. They also get tax breaks, cheap government land, and other subsidies. Dumping waste into public water is another example.

    Granted, Gen IV plants sound safer. Do they work, are there any in operation, or are there simply the few prototypes being built? The time to deal with global warming was ten years ago; we really don’t have time to wait for all the bugs to be worked out.

    If they work, then fine, they can be part of the solution. Solutions to multifaceted problems tend to be multifaceted. Replacing fossil fuel energy production should have multiple answers.

    As for short-term storage, that’s part of the job of smart grids – shifting power around. The expected large fleet of electric cars can themselves be part of the solution to energy storage and shifting. And has been mentioned, there are plenty of workable short term energy storage now. Electric cars plugged into the grid, kinetic energy storage*, several salt solutions are used for their evaporating-condensing characteristics, boiling water for later turbine spinning, etc.

    I am also worried by disruption of the infrastructure from various causes**. How well will even Gen IV plants handle a complete and prolonged breakdown of water supplies, lack of workers, broken power grid, etc. More modular nuke plants will be better for this, yes.

    *One wind farm near an abandoned rail center pulls old railroad cars uphill by cable for later power generation. When power production is erratic but essentially free, storage need not be efficient.

    ** Some problems that seem feasible: rivers drying up due to prolong droughts; superstorms flooding and washing away structures, roads, power lines, etc.; employees blocked from commuting for weeks or even longer by floods; disruption of society by war or climate refugees. Locally internet and phone connections were restored yesterday to 2500 people after a metal thief took over 300 meters of fiber and copper cable strung over a river valley. This problem will likely get worse, not better.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    That new permit also allowed them to increase the amount of mercury it releases into the lake to 20 times the legal limit.

    That permit sounds illegal in itself – and ought to bring the enviro lawyers runnin’!

  25. longstreet63 says

    The great thing about the Indiana legislature is that not only is it a reliable Crazy Right Wing Agenda machine, but it is also blantantly corrupt!
    It’s like two flavors in one!

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