Marathon plan to hike refinery emissions stirs backlash

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Marathon Petroleum’s massive operation in Southwest Detroit is seeking permit changes that will allow it to increase emissions from its plant. But some of the region’s elected officials feel the area has already been polluted enough.

The refinery, which completed a $2.2 billion expansion in 2012, is looking for permission to release additional sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into the air. Wednesday evening, officials with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality will host an information session followed by a public hearing on the proposed changes at River Rouge High School, starting at 6 p.m.

In a November letter to Marathon, state officials indicated they plan to approve the permit, writing: “(DEQ’s) Air Quality Division has evaluated these proposals and made a preliminary determination that they will not violate (DEQ) rules or National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”

For years, residents who live around the refinery have complained of problems ranging from overpowering odors to physical ailments that they attribute to Marathon’s plant. The petroleum company bought out a large number of its neighbors to the northwest before completing the expansion. Those left out of the purchase program have continued to have issues.

A Marathon spokesman said the emissions increases are necessary for the company to meet new federal standards on cleaner fuels. After the increases, release levels will remain below what is permitted by law, the company says.

“The project at the refinery will enable the facility to comply with the EPA regulation by reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from gasoline,” said Jamal Kheiry, Marathon’s communications manager. “As a result of this project, we expect the refinery’s emission levels will continue to be well below those allowed under its existing permit.”

On Tuesday, state senators representing the Detroit area — Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, Morris Hood III, D-Detroit, Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, and Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield — issued a joint statement opposing DEQ approval of the Marathon permits. The statement referenced the problems with lead in drinking water in Flint that occurred during oversight by state environmental officials.

“We already know that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has made serious errors in Flint, and they’re about to make one in Detroit. The dangerous emissions and particulate matter that Marathon’s revised permits would allow are directly linked to increased asthma rates, heart attacks and early deaths — and children and seniors will suffer the most. This is why asthma rates in Michigan are 10 percent higher than the national average.

“When we allow our refineries and coal-fired power plants to belch toxic fumes into our neighborhoods, we set ourselves up for a legacy of poor health and skyrocketing medical bills. We call on the MDEQ to take a stand in favor of protecting our citizens and deny these permits — it’s time for the state to stop using poor communities as dumping grounds.”

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