Wayne State law clinic advocates against pet coke piles in River Rouge

Students in Wayne State University Law School’s Transnational Environmental Law Clinic (http://law.wayne.edu/clinics/environmental.php) have been at the forefront of research and action into concerns about storing mountains of petroleum coke near local rivers and residential areas. Pet coke – a byproduct of oil refining from tar sands – began being stored in four-story mounds along the Detroit riverfront near the Ambassador Bridge in fall 2012. The mounds drew public concern from business owners, community activists, environmental experts, politicians and residents in spring 2013, when photos taken from the Canadian side of the Detroit River showed clouds of dust blowing off the piles. Residents complained about breathing the dust and of it getting into their homes, and environmentalists worried that runoff from the piles would further pollute the river.

In August 2013, after months of controversy, then-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing ordered the pet coke piles removed, citing violations of city regulations. The mounds were transported elsewhere, including to Ohio. The company that owns the pet coke sought to store it in River Rouge, eight miles south of its earlier location, but State officials have denied a permit to store it there. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied the permit request because of the “fugitive dust” issue, according to the Detroit News.

State environmental officials have said the mounds pose no significant health risk. Wayne Law Assistant (Clinical) Professor Nick Schroeck, director of the clinic and executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, has spoken out against the pet coke storage piles. The environmental law clinic, which began in 2009, works with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (http://www.glelc.org/files/schroeck-glelc-press-release.pdf) In 2011, the clinic joined forces with University of Windsor (Ontario) Law School to become the nation’s first Transnational Environmental Law Clinic.

Clinic students, including third-year law student Benjamin McCoy of Ann Arbor, were active in the 2013 community efforts to get the Detroit pet coke piles removed from an area near the Ambassador Bridge and continued their advocacy on the issue for the proposed piles in River Rouge. Second-year law student Paul Stewart of Ann Arbor got involved with state agencies over the Detroit pet coke issue on behalf of the clinic. He drafted a Freedom of Information Act request to state agencies involved with the policies, analyzed the information received from the request and gained a better understanding of the legal issues involved in the piles.

For the proposed pet coke storage piles in River Rouge, third-year law student Patrick Tully of Boston represented the Law Center at an April 9 public hearing. Also April 9, U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, and other legislators called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate pet coke’s potential effects on public health and the environment, as well as the best methods for storing and transporting the piles, which are exported to other countries to be burned with coal for energy, a polluting process not permitted by U.S. law.

Schroeck, with others from Wayne State, is seeking funding to study health impacts from pet coke and industrial pollution in Detroit and legal solutions to address the concerns. The ensuing study will involve clinic students.

Source: Wayne State University Law School. For information on the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic, contact Shawn Starkey, shawn.starkey@wayne.edu.