Energy & Environment

The Texas Coast: Leader Of Refineries Producing Mountains Of Petroleum Coke

Petroleum coke is a by-product of refining crude oil. It’s stored in huge piles that look like black mountains. There’s concern that fine dust could blow from the piles into neighborhoods.

petroleum coke
Mountains of petroleum coke near the Beltway 8 bridge at the Houston Ship Channel. Photo by Dave Fehling.


Air monitors
Air monitors placed in backyard of home a mile from the Houston Ship Channel. Photo courtesy of Air Alliance Houston

Petroleum coke is a by-product of refining crude oil. It’s stored in huge piles that look like black mountains. There’s concern that fine dust could blow from the piles into neighborhoods.

Last summer in Detroit, a reporter for Fox 2 News was live with protestors who were blocking an entrance to a river terminal.

“They’ve had to put up with thick black dust in their homes … Some say it’s causing respiratory problems,” said the reporter.

In Chicago, ABC-7 led their newscast with the same issue in that city.

“New from us at 5 o’clock, some residents say it’s contaminating their neighborhood. Tonight, the City of Chicago says it’s cracking down on petroleum coke emissions,” said the anchor.

Petroleum coke was piling up by the thousands of tons. The coke was a by-product from refineries that were processing heavy-crude oil. The heavier or dirtier the crude oil, the more pet coke is produced. The black mountains of the coke were out-in-the-open so on windy days residents said clouds of black dust would blow into their neighborhoods.

The refineries in the region that includes Michigan and Illinois produce the nation’s third highest amount of pet coke. The West Coast is second. But both are dwarfed by the amount produced along the Gulf Coast, mostly in Texas and Louisiana according to report to Congress.

Fourteen refineries along the Texas coast produce petroleum coke, far more such refineries than in any other state. The coke piles up in ship and rail terminals with much of it eventually exported to places like China where it’s used as fuel.

Yet, Harris County Pollution Control says it has not received any complaints from neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel. But environmental groups are asking questions and pointing fingers.

“The pet coke operations there are so dirty that even if you look at Kinder Morgan’s own publicity materials for the site you’ll see dust blowing off the top of the pet coke,” said Eric de Place. He’s with the Seattle-based group, Sightline Institute. Kinder Morgan is the operator of pet coke terminals located along the Ship Channel near where it crosses under the Beltway 8 bridge. The Houston-based company is one of the nation’s biggest energy corporations.

Esmerelda Moreno and her two daughters talk with Belinda Vasquez. To hear their story, listen to the radio segment above. Photo by Dave Fehling

A local environmental group, Air Alliance Houston, said it placed air monitors in a neighborhood a mile north of the terminals.

“They did find coal dust on some of the samples that we took,” said Belinda Vasquez, the group’s community outreach director.

News 88.7 asked Kinder Morgan if it had any air monitoring results of its own that would indicate if dust was or was not blowing off its coke piles. The company emailed a response saying it not only complies with pollution laws but has spent $200 million in just the past two years on environmental upgrades. The company said conveyor belts that carry the coke are equipped with dust-suppression systems as are the coke piles themselves, measures required under Texas law.

In an emailed response from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, regulations that apply to the Kinder Morgan terminals include:

  • There shall be no visible emissions leaving the property from the property line. Observations for visible emissions shall be performed and recorded quarterly.
  • Stockpiles shall be sprinkled with water as necessary to maintain compliance with the Opacity/Visible Emission Limitations of the permit.

But if coke dust did blow off-site, could that affect people’s health? Possibly, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Not because coke dust is chemically toxic, but because the particles are microscopic and can damage the heart and lungs according to the EPA’s website. The EPA says coke dust, in significant quantities, could be a health risk.

In Detroit, where they had those protests, Michigan environmental officials concluded that in neighborhoods a mile from the coke piles, there was no “significant … health hazard”.


Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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