New Marathon pact would kill flare, reduce pollution

Jim Lynch, and Leonard N. Fleming

Residents in southwest Detroit, long plagued by air pollution from their industrial neighbors, on Thursday got their second piece of good news this month that might lead them to breathe easier down the road.

Marathon Petroleum, which operates a massive refinery facility along Interstate 75 near the Rouge River border, has agreed to take steps that will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 28 tons per year starting next month. In addition, that level will reduce by another 7 tons a year beginning in 2019.

Company officials have agreed to eventually cease operating a flare, a device designed to burn off flammable gases, at the edge of its property near Schaefer. The move will cost of $6 million.

Another $36 million will be spent to capture gases that currently go to the refinery’s flares.

The terms are laid out in an agreement struck between Marathon and the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This agreement continues the significant reductions achieved under our earlier consent decree with Marathon in 2012,” said John Cruden, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, in a press release. “All five communities near these refineries will breathe cleaner air as a result of this agreement, and Detroit will see a reduction in flaring at the refinery’s fence line.”

Longtime residents in the neighborhoods surrounding Marathon and other area industrial operations in Detroit have complained for years about poor air quality they believe is damaging their health.

“The Detroit area has one of the highest asthma rates in the nation,” acting EPA Regional Administrator Robert Kaplan said in a statement. “Today’s agreement is a step in the right direction to improve air quality in a neighborhood that has been overburdened by pollution.”

On Thursday, Marathon officials said they have worked to address flaring issues since 2008, when the EPA first made its concerns known. Five of the Detroit facility’s six flares will meet the requirement of the 2012 consent decree by the June 30 deadline.

“For the last flare, our work under the consent decree over the past few years led us to conclude that we can eliminate it entirely,” Marathon Petroleum Communications Director Jamal Kheiry said in a written response. “So, instead of bringing it into compliance, we will shut it down. However, in order to do this, we requested a 30-month extension to the deadline, so that we can build the additional piping that will be needed to safely shut down the flare.

“This means the flare will be operating for 30 months longer than we had anticipated, resulting in additional sulfur dioxide emissions of 3.4 tons during this period. However, by eliminating the flare entirely, we will reduce criteria pollutant emissions by an additional 15.5 tons per year than originally projected with the original consent decree.”

State officials have worked since 2010 to find steps that would reduce harmful sulfur dioxide in southwest Detroit. On June 1, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality submitted a plan of action to the EPA for reducing air pollution coming from four other industrial operations in the area, including addressing sulfur dioxide emissions.

The DEQ has been under continued scrutiny by residents over their concerns about whether the agency has been enforcing tough enough standards regarding water and air quality as well as drilling.

“The DEQ is committed to protecting the health of Michiganders in communities across the state,” DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said Thursday. “We appreciate public input and passion around these difficult topics, and we remain dedicated to prioritizing the protection of public health and the environment.”

About 30 protesters, who stood Thursday in front of Cadillac Place, where DEQ has an office in Detroit, took to task the well-documented issues over sulfur dioxide emissions from Marathon Petroleum along Interstate 75 near the Rouge River border, among other environmental concerns.

“We’re out here today because we have seen where MDEQ has put industry and profits and bottom lines above human health,” said Kim Hunter, social justice media coordinator for Engage Michigan, an advocacy group. “The examples are Flint where they switched from Detroit to Flint water and Marathon Oil putting SO2 into the atmosphere. The people who are supposed to be our watchdogs are not paying attention to human health. They are paying attention to folk’s bottom lines.”

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