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Petroleum Coke Toxicity

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Recent news coming from outside Buffalo, New York about the toxic levels of contaminants found in the air and soil around the Tonawanda Coke plant reminds us to consider our environmental role in the production of green coke.  You can read more about the Tonawanda controversy and litigation here and here.  While exact disposition of the products from this plant and the process details are not known to us, the news about the toxic materials affecting the surrounding community gives us pause to consider our environmental impacts from the refining side of the coking industry.

Below is the NFPA Diamond associated with Petroleum Coke.

Petcoke NFPA Sign

While there are many hazards associated with green coke in the unit, the toxicity and environmental impacts of the petroleum coke itself seems relatively low.   A report published by the EPA (link here) in 2007 entitled “Petroleum Coke Category Analysis and Hazard Characterization” demonstrated no or low levels of toxicity in the following categories.

The report indicated that green coke was considered a more severe test case due to the presence of the volatile matter (VCM).

The bottom line seems to be that green coke is fairly non-toxic.  However, long-term exposure to the coke dust can cause some respiratory effects.  We recommend that care should be taken by sites to minimize exposure to long term coke cutters and those who routinely work in coke barns or loading plants.  Modern advances in remote deheading and cutting have allowed for the removal of the coke cutter from the top deck and away from the rail cars, thus reducing much of the daily exposure to petcoke dust and other hazards out there.

If you work in the coker, the material safety datasheet (MSDS) for petcoke (and all other chemicals on your unit) should be readily accessible to you.  Have you ever looked at it?  Here are a few examples of MSDS sheets for petcoke: Hovensa (link) and Marathon (link).

What is the most toxic thing on the coker? It depends on what type of ancillary equipment might be within your battery limits but rich amine (pH of 13) or caustic (NaOH) could be on the short list.  Most of the chemicals on the coker are fairly non-toxic but it is worth considering which ones deserve special care.

Next time you walk by a drum of oil for the rotary joint or the antifoam chemical tote, take a second to consider what is in there and what special safety considerations are associated with that chemical.  Also think about where the nearest safety shower, eye wash station is and if that station in good order?

One response to “Petroleum Coke Toxicity”

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Posted by: Evan Hyde

Evan Hyde is the director of field services for He previously was president of C2 Nano Technology where they researched surface treatments to combat fouling & corrosion issues in cokers & other petrochemical process units. He was a Senior Engineering Advisor for Becht Engineering Co., Inc. and has consulted on processing improvement and reliability initiatives for coking clients around the world. Prior to joining Becht, Evan worked for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, as a process engineer, with assignments in research, and troubleshooting for heavy oil upgrading equipment. He holds a B.S. of Chemical Engineering from Pennsylvania State University.