Detroiters left out of Marathon buyouts feel neglected

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Detroit — This small pocket of Detroit's 48217 ZIP code is surrounded by things most homeowners choose to avoid.

Eight lanes of Interstate 75 frame the western side of this area in the city's southwestern corner — part of the Boynton neighborhood. A wastewater treatment plant lies to the east. Railroad tracks run along the southern end while high-voltage power lines, suspended from massive metal towers, crisscross above the homes here. University of Michigan researchers have labeled this the state's most polluted ZIP code.

Looming largest is the Marathon refinery plant just over the highway — one of the biggest industrial operations in Michigan. Two years ago, the petroleum company completed a $2.2 billion expansion of the facility, allowing it to increase its capacity from 106,000 to 123,000 barrels per day, handle tar sands oil and emit more pollutants.

In 2011, Marathon officials anticipated problems and created a buyout program allowing residents to sell their homes. Owners of 266 of 294 identified properties participated.

But the targeted homes were in Oakwood Heights, northeast of Marathon's operation. Most residents to the southeast — in the 20 or so blocks of Boynton bounded by I-75, Pleasant Street, Schaefer Highway and Bassett Street — were not offered buyouts. Only a handful of homeowners here, roughly 10 whose homes are across a street from the plant, were given the chance to leave.

Now, many remaining homeowners ask: What about us?

"No one will buy this house now — it's only worth about $15,000 and it's in good shape ...," said Emma Lockridge, 61, whose family has lived in her Boynton area home since the 1950s. "I'm still trying to make Marathon buy it because they should. That tar sands refinery has been a deal breaker. ... I'm not walking away from this without Marathon's help."

Marathon has no plans to offer additional buyouts.

Both neighborhoods have been in slow decline — dealing with abandoned homes, increased crime and the odor, noise and dust that come with living near a refinery. Residents in both areas routinely complain of respiratory issues and high incidences of cancers.

Neighborhood contrasts

For homeowners in Oakwood Heights, Marathon's buyout plan included a minimum purchase price of $50,000, an expense allowance totaling $5,000, $500 for legal counseling and $1,500 in assistance for a new mortgage.

But other longtime homeowners were stuck. They had long ago paid off their homes and couldn't get anywhere near the amount they'd paid because of a weak real estate market and the massive industrial operations around them.

So why wasn't the buyout offered to both neighborhoods?

"Marathon Petroleum Corp. offered the buyout program to Oakwood Heights residents because the ... expansion resulted in the refinery's operational footprint moving closer to the neighborhood," wrote Jamal Kheiry, a Marathon spokesman, in an email response to questions. "Also, the neighborhood was essentially a residential island, surrounded by industry and the Rouge River, with little or no buffer between them.

"It's also important to note that the (Oakwood Heights) area was bypassed for federal funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program ... the objective of which is to rebuild urban residential and neighborhood infrastructure. The Boynton neighborhood was designated for that funding."

But many in the Boynton neighborhood nearest the plant say while Oakwood Heights residents is a racially diverse group, with many whites, the area Marathon's buyout program ignored is almost entirely black.

"If a white community gets upset about something, people will respond and they will get a response," Lockridge said. "As a black community, we have never been able to get an attorney to represent anything we try to do in terms of getting after Marathon. They do not care."

Marathon reiterated it didn't offer a buyout in Boynton because it already qualifies for federal assistance under a program that targets communities hit by abandonment and foreclosures.

Lockridge similarly points to complaints that have amassed for two decades about Detroit's incinerator from largely minority families living close to the operation near the I-75 and I-94 interchange.

She contends things began to happen when those odors began affecting residents in growing, trendy Midtown. Last month, the Michigan Attorney General's Office and the Department of Environmental Quality announced a settlement with the incinerator operators that imposed a $350,000 fine for past violations and set up a penalty system for future problems.

The trust levels of residents here took another hit in May 2013 when a tank explosion at the Marathon plant was initially classified as a Level 3 hazardous material emergency. It led to the evacuation of Melvindale residents west of the plant, but Detroit emergency responders failed to do the same in Boynton.

'I can't breathe'

Boynton residents said things have only gotten worse since the plant's expansion.

"Over there where I live, right in that house, that smell and everything (comes) right in my front door ...," said Jacqueline Smith, 69, whose family has lived Ethel Street for half a century. "It's so devastating, I can't breathe. I get dizzy..."

Marathon's newest additions allow the plant to handle tar sands oil — a heavier product than the regular crude oil that has been processed there for years. To do it, the company needed new permits from the Michigan DEQ, and those permits have allowed Marathon to emit more material into the air, said Jorge Acevedo, a DEQ senior environmental engineer .

The increases, all within the levels permitted under the Clean Air Act, included:

■Sulfur dioxide, previously capped at 178 tons per year, is now permitted at 371 tons per year.

■Particulate matter, previously capped at 202 tons per year, is now permitted at 206.6 tons per year.

■Nitrogen oxides, previously capped at 357 tons per year, are now permitted at 642 tons per year.

Acevedo said winds normally blow from west to east in this area, which carries Marathon's fumes and particulate matter toward this portion of Boynton. That brings them right to Adrienne Crawford-Hill's front door, just a block from the Marathon plant fence. Outside the house on a recent Wednesday, the chemical smell in the air was overpowering.

In the earliest stages of the buyout plan, the 56-year-old Crawford-Hill negotiated with Marathon to sell her home, the only one remaining along its side of Pleasant Street. But the process uncovered liens on the property incurred by a family member that scuttled the deal — a situation that still hurts her.

"The whole process has been dehumanizing," she said.

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