Wayne Law clinic works to protect public health from pet coke piles

April 22, 2014

Nick Schroeck










Paul Stewart










Ben McCoy

Students in Wayne State University Law School's Transnational Environmental Law Clinic have been at the forefront of research and action into concerns about storing mountains of petroleum coke near local rivers and residential areas.

Pet coke - a byproduct of oil refining from tar sands - began being stored in four-story mounds along the Detroit riverfront near the Ambassador Bridge in fall 2012. The mounds drew public concern from business owners, community activists, environmental experts, politicians and residents in spring 2013, when photos taken from the Canadian side of the Detroit River showed clouds of dust blowing off the piles. Residents complained about breathing the dust and of it getting into their homes, and environmentalists worried that runoff from the piles would further pollute the river.

In August 2013, after months of controversy, then-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing ordered the pet coke piles removed, citing violations of city regulations. The mounds were transported elsewhere, including to Ohio. But the company that owns the pet coke is seeking to store it in River Rouge, eight miles south of its earlier location. The Wayne Law environmental clinic again is involved in the issue.

Wayne Law Assistant (Clinical) Professor Nick Schroeck, director of the clinic and executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, has spoken out against the pet coke storage piles.

State environmental officials have said the mounds pose no significant health risk. Schroeck isn't convinced.

The environmental law clinic, which began in 2009, works with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and - on selected issues - represents community organizations and public-interest groups. In 2011, the clinic joined forces with University of Windsor (Ontario) Law School to become the nation's first Transnational Environmental Law Clinic.

Clinic students, including third-year law student Benjamin McCoy of Ann Arbor, were active in the 2013 community efforts to get the Detroit pet coke piles removed and continue to work on the issue for the proposed piles in River Rouge.

"I drafted a complaint concerning the (Detroit) pet coke issue, met with prospective clients, did research into factual and legal aspects of pet coke and attended community events and press conferences with Professor Schroeck," McCoy said. "I learned about the importance of community advocates and community groups in environmental law issues, and I also learned about how the issue of pet coke fits in with the larger problems in our energy infrastructure."

Meanwhile, second-year law student Paul Stewart of Ann Arbor got involved with state agencies over the Detroit pet coke issue on behalf of the clinic.

"I drafted a Freedom of Information Act request to state agencies that were involved with the piles, analyzed the information received from the request and communicated with staff at the state agencies to get a better understanding of the legal issues involved with the piles," Stewart said. 

For the proposed pet coke storage piles in River Rouge, third-year law student Patrick Tully of Boston represented the Wayne Law environmental clinic at an April 9 public hearing attended by more than 150 people. The outcome of the company's request for state approval to store pet coke in River Rouge is pending.

Also April 9, U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, and other legislators called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate pet coke's potential effects on public health and the environment, as well as the best methods for storing and transporting the piles, which are exported to other countries to be burned with coal for energy, a polluting process not permitted by U.S. law.

Schroeck, with others from Wayne State, is seeking funding to study health impacts from pet coke and industrial pollution in Detroit and legal solutions to address the concerns. The ensuing study will involve clinic students, Schroeck said.

For McCoy, who has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Michigan and plans a career in environmental law, being involved with the clinic on the issue has been great experience.

"Working for the clinic was, for me, the single most important aspect of my time at Wayne Law," he said. "The experience I gained has given me a deeper knowledge of how environmental law functions and how it can be used to promote the wellbeing of the natural environment. I would certainly recommend it to all law students with an interest in environmental law."

Stewart, too, found his experience with the clinic to be rewarding. He holds a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from Michigan State University

"Working at the clinic provided an opportunity to actually apply the legal concepts that I was learning in the classroom," Stewart said.

"Professor Schroeck made sure not just that I produced a good work product but that I learned as much as possible along the way. I benefited greatly from working at the clinic."