Marathon says it’ll cut emissions after backlash

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Marathon Petroleum Co. is retooling an emissions request for its southwest Detroit refinery, promising a lower level of pollutants and spending $10 million to achieve it, the city’s administration says.

The company on Monday was preparing to submit its amended request to state environmental regulators after public meetings in which residents, civic leaders and activists lobbied against the refinery’s attempt to gain approvals to release more sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into the air.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, executive director of the city’s health department, said Monday he’s proud of the company for working with the city and hearing out community concerns.

“This is an important step,” said El-Sayed, who’d been an outspoken opponent of Marathon’s request to increase emissions, which he argued would “set a dangerous precedent.”

El-Sayed said with the amendments, Marathon will commit to a 20 percent reduction in its permitted emission levels of sulfur dioxide. Marathon’s permitted sulfur dioxide emissions levels are just under 400 tons per year. With the 20 percent reduction, it would reduce that level to about 320 tons per year.

The refinery has emitted well under that cap in recent years. In 2015, it emitted 189 tons for the full year. In 2014, it emitted 211 tons and 265 tons in 2013, data show.

City health officials met informally last week with members of the community around the refinery. On Monday evening, officials convened a separate gathering with the community members most affected.

“This is a proposed plan. The mayor is ready to sign off when he sees this all in writing,” El-Sayed said.

Jamal Kheiry, spokesman for Marathon, said Monday the company “heard very clearly” from civic leaders and the community that they wanted to see no increase in emissions.

He said Marathon has worked with the city to revise the permit request. He declined to provide specifics on the plan, stressing it hasn’t yet been filed with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Company officials previously argued the permit was needed since they need to install new technology to meet new federal cleaner fuel standards. Release levels, they said, would have remained below what is permitted by law.

But residents, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others weren’t convinced Marathon or the MDEQ had their best interest at heart. Some residents have complained for years of odors and illnesses they attribute to Marathon’s plant, and the potential of the permit approval had the city’s administration threatening legal action.

Opponents, including Duggan and El-Sayed, spoke out during a January meeting with the MDEQ that was requested by the Detroit City Council. Prior to that, a separate January meeting over Marathon’s request drew hundreds of residents and others affected by the plant.

“We’re happy that Marathon has reconsidered,” El-Sayed said. “This is a great nod to the people in the neighborhood. We think this plan is a good plan.”

Marathon, in a fact sheet on its website, notes the refinery’s emissions account for less than 3 percent of emissions from industry in a two-mile radius of the facility. Additionally, the refinery has reduced its emissions by more than 70 percent since 1999, it says.

“Even though we are a very small fraction of the emissions in our immediate area compared to other industries, the fact is that folks don’t want to see any additional emissions,” Kheiry said Monday. “We are amending our permit application with the MDEQ. The net result is going to be a zero increase in sulfur dioxide emissions.”

The EPA’s new fuel standards, scheduled to take effect next year, mandate lower sulfur gasoline. But to meet those requirements, Marathon must install new equipment to more fully process the crude oil, which in turn releases a bit more sulfur dioxide into the environment.

The initial request, if approved, would have allowed emissions to be 22 tons per year over the refinery’s current levels. But Kheiry said that calculation was based on the assumption of running new units at maximum capacity all the time. Therefore, it’s not a realistic estimate of what the emissions would be, he said.

In February, residents in the area near the refinery filed a federal class action lawsuit against Marathon alleging they’ve been exposed to unreasonable noise, odors and fumes, and that refinery contaminants have been linked to asthma, cancer and other diseases.

The suit is seeking damages in excess of $5 million, an injunction that would require Marathon to halt the release of refinery contaminants into the area and to implement noise and odor abatement protocols.

State Rep. Fred Durhal III, D-Detroit, said he and others wanted to see major changes in emissions. While knocking on doors for his candidacy, Durhal noted oxygen tanks and folks with health woes were prevalent.

“It breaks your heart,” he said, adding Marathon has been willing to listen to leaders and make changes. “Clean air is a right and we owe it to the folks of that community to make sure it happens.”

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, added she’s encouraged by the changes she’s heard about, but hasn’t seen the written plans.

“My concern is still that we need to be doing a look at the overall emissions, not just with Marathon, but all of the polluting companies,” she said.

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.”

The DEQ is reviewing residents’ comments related to Marathon’s permit request. No time frame has been set for a decision, officials said Monday.

Detroit has a 50 percent higher rate of asthma than the rest of the state and El-Sayed has said the city’s 48217 ZIP code is the most polluted in Michigan.

“The mayor and I are continually concerned about the health challenges in this highly industrial neighborhood,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

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