Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition

Unifying the voice of a generation in environmental solidarity

Power to the People: Petcoke Resistance in Detroit

When the news of the petroleum coke piles dumped along the Detroit River broke last month, I’m sad to say that my immediate reaction was not surprise. The petcoke piles are just another notch on the continuum of pollution and environmental injustice in Southwest Detroit.  Ever since my mom chose to move back to the city of Detroit two years ago, I’ve become used to the mysterious soot that seems to coat every outdoor surface and to the pungent smells that radiate down the block of my family’s home in Southwest Detroit.

As a brief reminder, the piles of petroleum coke (“petcoke”) have been deposited along the Detroit River, just east of the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, since the fall of 2012. Petcoke is a byproduct of burning crude tar sands, and it is estimated that every barrel of crude imported from Alberta results in an output of 60-130 pounds of petcoke. The petcoke being deposited along the Detroit River is only the beginning. The Marathon Oil Refinery in the 48217 zip code that produces this substance recently went through a $2 billion expansion in order to be able to process more of the tar sands, and thereby produce more of the petcoke.

It pains me to know that my family is suffering the side-effects of such environmental injustice while I live, work, and go to school in Ann Arbor, enjoying the privilege of clean air that is so often taken for granted.  So when I learned that the Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands (DCATS)-a division of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI CATS)– had been formed and was working on action around the petcoke piles, I was thrilled that people were taking action to combat the injustices my home community have been facing.  On Sunday, June 23, DCATS organized a march, rally, and action called “People Against Petcoke.”  At 3pm, we all met in Clark Park–a hub for community events in Southwest Detroit–where we heard several amazing speakers, from DCATS organizer Jarret Schlaff to the inspiring Charity Hicks.  From Clark Park, we marched the 1.8 miles to the site of the largest of the petcoke piles at the intersection of Rosa Parks and Jefferson Avenue.  Once there, we heard from more speakers, were fed exorbitant amounts of pie and pizza, and got direct action training, in which we practiced making consensus decisions and dealing with police, workers, and our fellow activists.  After the training, we walked down to the riverfront to join in a candlelit vigil at dusk with fellow activists across the river in Windsor, Canada.  It was windy and the candles flickered in and out, but the sense of solidarity was emanated from one side of the river to the other nonetheless.

A group of people kept a presence at the site of the action overnight, and at around 8:30 the next morning (July 24), they began a blockade to stop a truck carrying petcoke into the site.  I arrived around 9:15 and linked arms with the brave people who had stood in front of the truck to stop it.  There was a large cardboard padlock tied with string across the drive into the dumping site, behind which stood several police officers and border patrol, the numbers of which increased throughout the day.  In front of the padlock stood about 25-30 activists, about 7 of whom had arms linked directly in front of the truck, and the rest of whom stood in successive rows behind those who were willing to risk arrest for the action.  We held a press conference in which we read a “People’s Eviction Notice,” which ordered Marathon, the Koch Brothers, and Matty Maroun (the property owner) to shut down the docks and the discontinue the illegal dumping of petcoke.  We had incredible press coverage, and our police liaison did a spectacular job of communicating to the police that this blockade wasn’t about just “making a point.” It was about turning the trucks around and not letting anyone dump petcoke in this space anymore.  Therefore, when the police asked us several times to pack up and go, our response was that we wouldn’t leave until the petcoke was moved.

The morning continued on, and the amount of trucks waiting to enter the facility/dumping ground increased.  Several of them turned around, but when the action came to a head, there were 5 trucks piled up waiting to get in.  One of them–the one we stood directly in front of–held petcoke.  We held signs with the Marathon logo that read “Murder” and signs that informed that Koch brothers that Detroit is NOT their dump.  Once in awhile the wind would pick up and we would all be coated in a layer of petcoke. When I returned home I discovered the cap of my water bottle was filled with the substance and the sign I was carrying had a thin layer the black, oily grime on it.  The police were incredibly cooperative, and kept underlining that they didn’t wish to make any arrests that day.  However, as the hours came and went, they began to give us warnings that if we didn’t move, they would be bringing a paddy wagon to arrest us all.

The 7 people standing directly in front of the truck were prepared to be arrested; they had come to a consensus that they were willing to do so, and we had written the phone number of the legal aid on all of their arms and were beginning to prepare for the process of getting them out of jail.  Just before the paddy wagon had appeared, however, a worker from the facility we were blockading the entrance to appeared to negotiate with us.  He explained that it was really important to get the trucks that weren’t carrying petcoke into the facility, and that if we backed up the blockade, he would make the truck carrying petcoke turn around and wouldn’t let any other petcoke trucks return for the day.  When we asked how we could trust him on this promise, he pulled out his wallet and handed it to one of the protesters.  We confirmed that his I.D. and other important information were in the wallet.  The decision was made to back up the blockade to allow the petcoke truck to turn around and let the other trucks through.  As we backed up, the police line backed up, and several people were in tears as the petcoke truck turned around.  It was truly one of the most beautiful and cooperative outcomes I’ve seen at a direct action.  DCATS–theorganization responsible for coordinating the action–has vowed to continue its resistance until the petcoke piles are gone.

The illegal dumping of petcoke in the city of Detroit is just a small piece of the destruction created in every step of fossil fuel production and consumption.  I stand with DCATS, MI CATS, the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, and everyone else across the country and the world standing up against the fossil fuel industry.  Together, we will be victorious.  All power to the people!IMG_20130624_100315_451

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MSSC Signs on to Rulemaking Petition for Tar Sands

It seems like more and more we’ve been getting distinct, and terrifying, signs that the production and export of diluted bitumen (tar sands, dilbit) is NOT a good idea, but also comes at the expense of human and ecological health. Lets take a look back at tarsands in the news the past few weeks…

– Earlier in March piles of petcoke were found growing rapidly along the banks of the Detroit river. Petcoke is a byproduct of processing very dense crude oil, or tar sands, which the Detroit refinery does on a daily basis. Although the health/environmental affects of this substance are debated, they can undoubtedly leach heavy metals and/or sulphur into the Detroit River if it rains, which never happens in the spring….

– On March 28th a train carrying Canadian oil spilled 15,000-30,000 gallons of crude oil in Western Minnesota

– On March 29th a tar sands pipeline in Arkansas ruptured, spilling at least 80,000 gallons of diluted bitumen, which proceeded to make a river/flood of tar sands and water that caused 22 homes to be evacuated. Not only is this tar sands oil incredibly difficult to clean up, it also needs to be treated with Benzene (a known carcinogen) to make it flow through the pipeline)

– MEANWHILE, the EPA has ordered Enbridge to do additional dredging in the Kalamazoo River, where they’ve already recovered over one million gallons of the tar sands oil they spilled in to the river in 2010. Yes, even though they’ve already cleaned up one million gallons of this, TAR SANDS OIL IS STILL SUBMERGED IN THE RIVER AND WILL REMAIN THERE BECAUSE IT SINKS AND GETS EMBEDDED IN THE SEDIMENT AND IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO CLEAN UP. (But don’t worry, according to an industry study, this oil floats, it doesn’t sink, so can be dealt with like regular oil)

The good news at the end of this rage fueled rant?

The Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition recently signed on to an effort to get our government to do something about it! In Michigan Enbridge has already showed us that it is extremely unprepared to deal with a tar sands spill, but they still don’t have to follow any regulations or processes that acknowledge the unique properties of this oil, nor does any company. In order to address this large oversight that inevitably will cause major environmental destruction and threats to human health, the National Wildlife Federation is leading an effort to regulate this substance and halt any construction on pipelines  until further research has been done on tar sands that can inform better and more appropriate safety regulations and emergency response plans.

The MSSC has signed on to this rulemaking petition in partnership with 29 national, state and local organizations as well as 36 landowners from states across the country impacted by existing and proposed tar sands pipelines. We have filed our petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the  Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to ask for stronger safety standards for tar sands pipelines.

You can read the full petition, and get more context for it, at NWF’s post here. However, if these are accepted, the next step will be lots of public comment in support of the petition! Stay tuned for next steps on how you can do that.

Overall, the outcome of this position does not attack the root cause of this problem– the Canadian government allowing corporations to produce this oil at the expense of ecosystem health and First Nation lands and health. However, this is a politically feasible solution to some of the disastrous effects that tar sands can induce when spilled into the environment. If we can prevent any person from having to see their land, drinking water sources, livelihoods, favorite natural areas, etc be destroyed by this substance that will be a good first step.

And don’t think that we’re not going to keep fighting for tar sands to stop being produced and transported completely. What has happened in Michigan, and in many other places across the country, is 100% unacceptable.  I can say that we’ve got some exciting plans in the works to help unite many voices in MI who are ready to take more serious action around our pipeline issues and make sure that the nation recognizes the threats that Enbridge, and all those who seek to profit from tar sands oil, pose to ourselves and our planet.

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Issue Briefs Part 1: Tar Sands

In order to kick off our working groups, we decided it would be a good idea to put together some information about each issue we are working on. This information is so that other Michigan students and citizens can become more informed about each issue, as well as gain resources to learn more and ways to get engaged.

Our first issue brief is about tar sands, an issue that has gained recent national attention for the debates on whether or not to build the international Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. However, here in Michigan we’ve also been affected by this in many ways, including the devastating Enbridge 2010 tar sands spill in the Kalamazoo river and their ongoing plans to continue expanding.

So what is tar sands? Well, tar sands, oil sands, or “bituminous sands”, basically refers to thick oil that has mixed with a large area of  sand and clay due to a lot of years of natural geological uplift. For the past few decades oil companies have been extracting this bitumen from sand and clay in order to get oil that we can burn to make and do things. Currently, many companies are looking for ways to get this oil to the coasts of the US in order to export it to the rest of the world. In Michigan, pretty much all of the oil we use is this tar sands oil because we have an extensive underground pipeline network and a large refinery in Detroit, check out the map.

The largest deposits of bitumen in the world occur in Canada. In Alberta these reserves are actually the 3rd largest crude oil deposit in the world.  Although we don’t live in Canada, I feel pretty terrible for using this oil that has such a negative effect on the land, wildlife, and indigenous people in the area where they extract tar sands. Here are a couple of reasons why this extraction process just isn’t worth it:

  • It uses tons of other resources that we need!
    • Like water.  It takes from 2.5 to 4 barrels of fresh water to produce 1 barrel of tar sands oil. This water becomes polluted and at least 90% of it ends up in toxic lakes, like the one the ducks died on. These toxic lakes in Alberta CAN BE SEEN FROM SPACE and span over 30 miles.
    • And also natural gas. Processing the tar sands uses enough natural gas per day to heat 3 million homes in Canada.
  • It is one of the most carbon-intensive fuels to  produce.
    • Producing a barrel of tar sands oil emits 3x more greenhouse gases than producing a barrel of conventional oil
    • Tar sands production is the largest cause of increasing greenhouse emissions in Canada and stands to destroy their important boreal forest ecosystem. (which, if left intact, could offset emissions and provide important protection to wildlife fleeing changing climates elsewhere)

So what can we do about tar sands here in Michigan? Like I was saying, we don’t live in Canada where all of this production actually occurs, so we need to take some time to examine the power we do have to make it stop.  Although we don’t have much say in the production, other than the fact that we consume it, we do have a say in the infrastructure for tar sands in our state (or at least we should!) If you take another look at that map, you can see that these Enbridge pipelines pretty much surround our state, and run right through the Great Lakes and under the Mackinac Strait. What this map doesn’t tell you is the story of how those pipelines get to be there, and this is the story that I believe can have the greatest impact on our work.

Private landowners have had, and continue to have to, give up their land and livelihoods so that these pipelines can be built. Although Enbridge spilled nearly one million gallons of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo river (that they still haven’t been able to clean up), they are currently expanding the pipeline network and capacity in Michigan AND connecting our lines with New England lines so that they can get tar sands to the east coast for export. This entire process of creating an international tar sands pipeline has been done with very little public input and it is very clear that Enbridge has been mistreating and manipulating the landowners they are trying to work with. Additionally, we have no reason to believe that they will not spill again and this time it could be a spill right in the middle of the world’s largest (unfrozen) body of freshwater! Here are a few resources that will help you learn more about a few of these issues:

Although this all seems pretty bad, many people are standing up to tar sands and these corporations. In Texas, where they are building the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline (Which would pump oil from Canada out through the Gulf Coast for export), a diverse and strong group of people have come together to block this construction through non-violent direct action. This Texas tar sands blockade is an amazing sign of what people are willing to do when their land and livelihoods are destroyed for dirty oil profit, and the wide range of people that are affected by this.

It seems that if we stick together and demand to be treated with dignity and respect as MI residents and landowners, we stand to make a difference. Be a part of the solution and pick a way to get involved! It can be as simple as joining us against Enbridge on Facebook, or you could make the trek to DC this February to participate in the largest rally our generation will have ever seen so far to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, and call on President Obama to use his second term to take immediate climate action. AND you can even join our tarsands working group to help coordinate action around tar sands here in Michigan, just sign up here!

And please, feel free to leave a comment if you have anything to add or have any questions!

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