WASHINGTON -- Ohio may be the new home for a heap of petroleum coke, a byproduct of refining crude oil.
The 40-foot high pile of "pet coke" had been sitting in Detroit until earlier this month, when that city's mayor ordered its removal by Aug. 27, amid concerns about the public health and environmental implications. The company that owns the fuel waste, Koch Carbon, said last month that it would ship the pile to Ohio.
Koch Carbon officials did not respond to questions this week about whether the pet coke had been relocated, although officials in Detroit say the black residue is no longer piled up along the banks of the Detroit River. Ohio state officials said they couldn't confirm if the pet coke had landed in the Buckeye State.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency "has not been notified" of any petroleum coke shipment, "and there is no requirement to do so," said agency spokesman Chris Abbruzzese.
The controversy over the Detroit mound and the mystery over its current location highlight what some environmentalists, along with Democratic state and federal lawmakers, say is a new concern over the transportation and storage of this fuel waste.
"I've got a lot of concerns about it," said state Rep. Mike Foley, D-Cleveland. "How does someone just bring four stories worth of pet coke and dump it in Ohio somewhere? What the heck is this stuff?"
Petroleum coke is a byproduct generated when crude oil is refined into gasoline and diesel. Abbruzzese says the port of Toledo has been handling the residue "for decades" and has the proper air permits to do so.
Pet coke is used in cement and asphalt -- and it's also burned as a fuel in places like China and India.
It has a "very useful purpose," including "building our roads," said Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group.
Environmentalists have a different view.
"It's a cheap, dirty fuel," said Lorne Stockman, research director at Oil Change International, an environmental advocacy group. "This is the . . . stuff you can't have in your gasoline and diesel."
In Detroit, officials ordered the removal of the heap after residents began complaining. The black dust was "blowing into people's apartments through the window and on to people's cars," said Karla Henderson, a Detroit city planning official. "People should not have to live with that."
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said there were no documented public health or environmental effects from the site.
"It is very low toxicity," said the spokesman, Brad Wurfel, adding that the dust is classified as "nuisance."
Abbruzzese said in Ohio, companies do not have to keep pet coke in a covered facility, but they must control the dust that's created when unloading, loading and storing pet coke.
"Ohio EPA is concerned with the management of dust and storm water runoff from the handling and storage of petroleum coke," Abbruzzese said. "And we are proactively working with our partners to make sure any petroleum coke coming into the state is being managed appropriately."
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says there's not enough information about the safety of pet coke. And because of an expansion in U.S. refinery capacity, Brown says, the production of pet coke will increase -- with more storage needed in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere.
He has introduced legislation in the Senate, along with Michigan's two Democratic senators, that would require a new study of the health and environmental impacts of pet coke. The bill would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct an assessment of "best practices" for storing and transporting pet coke.
"Ohioans deserve a full study of the health and safety effects of petroleum coke," Brown said in a statement. "This will ensure the production, storage, and handling are guided by science and community input."
Some environmentalists have tried to link the Detroit controversy with the Keystone XL Pipeline, because the pet coke in question came from the Canadian tar sands oil that would flow from Canada to the Gulf Coast if the pipeline is built.
"The growth of pet coke production is directly linked to the growth of tar sands in Alberta, Canada," said Stockman. He said pet coke has received "very little scrutiny" until now, but he hopes the Detroit pile and the battle over Keystone will bring greater public attention to the issue.
He says Brown's bill is a needed first step to finding out more about pet coke.
But Wohlschlegel, of the American Petroleum Institute, said any effort to tie pet coke to Keystone is a "desperate attempt to try to stop something that's going to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans who need it."
He noted Brown's bill only has Democratic cosponsors and suggested it won't go anywhere in the current Congress.
By Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau
@dshesgreen on Twitter