But the sheer volume of petcoke that appeared suddenly in Detroit and Chicago this year — almost all of it in open-air piles — was unprecedented, and caught residents and public officials off guard.
With the amount of Canadian oil entering the U.S. increasing almost daily, refineries like Marathon in Detroit, BP in Whiting, Ind., and Phillips 66 in Roxana, Ill., have expanded to handle the glut. Even more oil could be on the way if the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is approved, though by then additional domestic pipelines could direct some to refineries in other regions, experts say.
Refineries usually sell the petcoke to other companies, which store it until it can be loaded onto Great Lakes ships for export to places like China. Burning it emits high levels of soot and greenhouse gases, so its use in the U.S. is limited.
In Detroit, petcoke began appearing along the Detroit River in the spring, several months after the Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery completed a $2.2 billion expansion. But an outcry by residents, who shot video footage of the blowing grit, prompted city officials to order the removal of the piles.
In Chicago, residents became alarmed when the black piles began growing about six months ago, said Tom Shepherd, a member of a neighborhood group. The last straw was when the petcoke went airborne on Aug. 30 and blew into their yards, churches and a Little League field.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the city Health Department to adopt regulations for petcoke, while aldermen introduced competing ordinances to regulate or ban it outright. The city and Illinois Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan have filed suit against Beemsterboer over the petcoke on his sites.
"You have a byproduct ... that is economically and environmentally degrading a community and the health for our children, and there's nothing on the books that allows Chicago to protect its own citizens," Emanuel said during a news conference.