by Chom Greacen
Special to the sounder
The image of a three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block by the Detroit River that appeared in a May 17, 2013 New York Times story was a wake-up call for me.
The rising accumulation of this toxic material, also known as “petcoke,” is a waste by-product of the booming Canadian tar sands (bitumen) extraction, refining and distribution industry. It is similar to coal, but with even higher CO2 emissions, heavy metals and carcinogenic PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) content. Petcoke sells at a significant discount to coal, and is increasingly blended with coal in coal-fired power plants making coal-fired generation cheaper and dirtier.
What does petcoke and tar sands have to do with us here in the San Juan?
The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, the largest coal export facility in North America, is also designed to handle and export dirty petcoke out of Cherry Point through our surrounding waters.
Petcoke is already produced as a refinery byproduct in Anacortes and Cherry Point. Up to 6,000 tons of coke are shipped weekly from the Anacortes refineries by train to the Alcan Inc. aluminum smelter in Kitimat, British Columbia.
As more tar sands are refined, petcoke production will increase.
Sticky bitumen, extracted from tar sands in Alberta and mixed with diluents to allow the mixture (“diluted bitumen” or “dilbit”) to flow, is transported through the existing pipeline from Alberta to refineries in Washington. As conventional oil from Alaska declines in production, tar sands oil will play an increasing role in meeting the U.S. demand. A plan is already in the works to more than double the pipeline capacity to move more tar sands oil through our Salish Sea.
Petcoke is thus the coal hiding in tar sands oil boom and is turning refineries into coal factories and our surrounding waters into dirty fossil fuel highway to Asia!
We are only beginning to see how tangled we are in this coal, tar sands oil, petcoke production and transportation business.
One local risk and potential impact arises from the open-air piles of petcoke at the Port of Anacortes awaiting shipment (by ship and by rail, in open box cars). The petcoke must be misted to reduce the release of toxic dust. The capture and treatment of this toxic dust and water mixture is at best diverted into the Anacortes sewage treatment plant, which does not detoxify heavy metals or PAHs.
These carcenogens likely end up in Padilla Bay and Salish Sea and bio-accumulate in shell fish, salmons, orcas and seafood-loving humans.
The growth of industrial petcoke activity may not be ours by conscious choice, but we can certainly do what we can to keep toxic coal, petcoke and tar sands oil off our food, waters and shoreline.
We can contact our local councilmen, representatives and legislatures to voice our concerns and demands for proper regulations, and choose to make steps towards less fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle to wean ourselves from the hydrocarbon industry.
Visit lopeznocoalition.wordpress.com to get sources of information for this column.
Chom Greacen works internationally in the field of energy, ranging from policy, legal and regulatory framework to small-scale system design and installation.