Energy & Environment

From Refining Black Gold, A Black Dust And Maybe A Pollution Problem

Neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel have long dealt with air pollution from all the industry concentrated there. But there are now concerns over a pollutant from a source you might not have heard of.


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ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery is the nation’s largest and is one of 26 along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast producing tons of petroleum coke. Photo by Dave Fehling. 


Think of the industry in the Ship Channel and big refineries with flares burning off chemical vapors might come to mind. But how about pollution from coal? Huge piles of coal. 

“There are times when the pile is as tall as the Beltway 8 bridge right there over the Houston Ship Channel,” said Adrian Shelley with Air Alliance Houston. He was one of several environmental activists on a conference-call, bringing attention to a by-product of oil refining.

It’s called petroleum coke, a more concentrated form of coal. Millions of tons of it pile up at terminals that often export it to places like China where it’s used for fuel. There are 56 refineries nationwide that produce it. Half of them are along the coast in Texas and Louisiana.

“You can’t think of it like regular dust. It sticks. It sticks to everything,” said Linda Ramil who lives near New Orleans across the street from a coke pile. She took part in the media conference call. 

The dust has also been a big issue in neighborhoods near Chicago and Detroit and in some places the piles are covered to prevent wind-borne dust according to the activists. They say the same should apply in Houston.

Kinder Morgan operates facilities along the Ship Channel and says their coke piles not only comply with environmental laws but are also equipped to minimize dust.

”We have spent approximately $200 million on environmental upgrades at our Houston bulk facilities over the past two years.  These upgrades include covered conveyor belts where possible, and our conveyor systems are equipped with wet dust suppression systems at multiple locations. In addition, there is dust suppression on our stored piles,” Kinder Morgan said in an emailed statement to News 88.7.

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