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Duggan joins those against Detroit refinery plans

Christine Ferretti and Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan on Thursday called on state environmental regulators to deny a permit by Marathon Petroleum to increase emissions at its refinery in southwest Detroit.

“What they are proposing is dumping 22 more tons of sulfur dioxide into the most polluted area in the state ... to improve the air quality in the rest of the state. That is not what the EPA regulations were suppose to do,” Duggan said before a packed public hearing by the Detroit City Council at the Patton Recreation Center and threatening a federal lawsuit if the state issues a permit.

“I urge the MDEQ to deny this permit,” Duggan said. “You cannot raise the pollutant levels in the area that’s most polluted to benefit everyone else. I believe that’s a civil rights violation.”

The council requested the session with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to explain the impact of the proposal.

Marathon is seeking permission to release more sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into the air. Company officials have said the change is needed to meet new federal cleaner fuel standards. Release levels will remain below what is permitted by law, they said.

Jim Wilkins, a manager for Marathon Petroleum, said the company has two other projects that will significantly reduce emissions. “If you add the reduction from these two other projects, they more than offset the pollutants,” Wilkins said. “In essence, by the time 2018 comes and we complete our Tier 3 project ... the refinery will be emitting less than it currently does today including sulfur dioxide.”

Residents at the meeting said they weren’t convinced that Marathon or the Department of Environmental Quality had their best interest at heart. Some have complained for years of odors and illnesses they attribute to Marathon’s plant.

After moving to the Schaefer and Fort area about six years ago, Lizzie Liddell said she developed asthma.

“I didn’t think all those smells and things were affecting my health,” she said. “I’m tired of it. I can’t sit on my porch because of the smells.”

Liddell said that many of her neighbors have suffered from cancer and she attributes it to the area’s poor air quality.

“Why would you let more emissions out on us?” she said. “I have to worry about my life.”

Concerns about the project reached beyond the refinery’s immediate area. Huntington Woods residents Mary Murphy, a retired nurse, said she is concerned that the emissions could reach her city.

“It will come to us depending upon the winds,” she said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue. There is enough asthma. It’s just going to make it worse ... The kids are going to suffer.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks against the refinery’s request. “I urge the MDEQ to deny this permit,” he said at the hearing.

Earlier Thursday, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said he was disturbed by Marathon Petroleum’s proposal.

“Permitting increased levels of sulfur dioxide and other harmful chemicals into the air would further threaten the quality of life of thousands of Wayne County residents,” Evans said in a statement Thursday. “It is critically important that residents are heard and taken seriously in this process. As we’ve learned from Flint, ignoring a community’s environmental concerns can have tragic consequences.”

The meeting was the second in recent weeks over Marathon’s request. Earlier this month, hundreds of residents and others affected by the plant packed a meeting.

The Duggan administration, said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s new executive director of the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, is “deeply concerned” about the city’s air and water quality.

El-Sayed said allowing more emissions in the heavily industrialized zone sets a harmful precedent. He added that Detroit has worked hard to have the Department of Environmental Quality and Marathon “do the right thing.”

“The mayor is committed to making sure we don’t set that precedent in Detroit,” he said. “We’ve spoken with legal and we’re not going to take it lying down regardless of what the decision is.”

The City Council this month unanimously approved a resolution in support of those against the additional releases. Council members were unable to comment at the hearing Thursday because with only three members, a quorum was not met.

Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, councilwoman for District 6, grew up near the affected southwest Detroit neighborhood. Earlier Thursday, she said that it’s the role of the Department of Environmental Quality to protect the community’s health and make sure environmental justice issues are addressed.

“They have to take into account the punitive affect that granting this permit will have on the community as a whole,” she said.