The vistas in struggling Detroit are not always beautiful. Once-grand commercial buildings stand open to the winds while wild grasses strangle those swathes of the city where abandoned homes have been razed. And now residents must deal with an enormous and fast-growing mountain of pitch-black coke.
It is right on their doorstep and comes courtesy of a company called Koch Carbon, owned by the super-rich industrialists David and Charles Koch, who are best known for donating enormous sums to conservative causes and candidates, and disparaging the science behind global warming.
The coke pile, which now stands about three storeys high and covers an area equivalent to a city block, began to rise last November when the local Marathon Oil complex began refining bitumen extracted from Canada’s tar-sands more than 2,000 miles away in northern Alberta. It is a by-product that few people want, especially in the US where the government blocks burning it for power generation because it is simply too dirty. The Kochs are planning to sell it to China and Mexico, where environmental standards are lower.
Efforts by activists and politicians on both sides of the Detroit River, which separates Michigan and Ontario, to have Koch Carbon do something about the coke pile seem so far to have come to naught. “What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground,” Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan state representative, told The New York Times this weekend. “Nobody knew this was going to happen.”
Recent speculation that the Koch brothers are preparing to bid for the Tribune newspaper group, which publishes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, has drawn widespread concern because of their hard-edged conservative views, including on the environment. In a 2010 report updated last year, Greenpeace estimated that the brothers spent more than $61m (£40m) between 1997 and 2010 to help fund groups dedicated to undermining the scientific evidence that global warming is man-made.
The Alberta tar-sands are already a source of controversy in the US because of plans for a pipeline to connect them to the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmentalists in the US already fear that building such a long pipeline would inevitably lead to spills and leaks. The coke pile in Detroit, however, has highlighted another issue. Once the bitumen reaches refineries on the Gulf Coast, will they not also start producing mountains of unwanted coke to blight the landscape?
In Detroit it is a problem that has already arrived. The coke stands barely a stone’s throw from downtown while residents of Windsor on the Canadian side of the river are also forced to look at it.
“Here’s a little bit of Alberta,” commented Brian Masse, who represents Windsor in the Canadian parliament. “For those that thought they were immune from the oil sands and the consequences of them, we’re now seeing up front and centre that we’re not.”