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Detroit — Extreme cold is believed to be the cause of a flare system malfunction at the Marathon oil refinery over the weekend, emitting an odor from the plant that sparked public health concerns.

Honor Sheard, environment, safety and security manager for the refinery, appeared before Detroit's City Council on Tuesday to provide details on the company's response to the malfunction of the flare system and what it did to inform the public.

"Once we start making repairs, one of our top priorities will be to determine how this incident happened," Sheard told council members. "We believe that it was linked to the extremely cold temperatures last week, but we will rely on our investigation to confirm that."

Sheard said once the issue was identified, Marathon notified multiple state, federal and local agencies and updated residents on the refinery website as well as sent out text messages, phone calls and emails to individuals subscribed to receive the alerts.

The company, state and city officials said the odor was not dangerous and that the levels were “far below” a health or safety risk.

Marathon expects to begin repair work before the end of the week and will complete it as quickly and safely as possible, said spokesman Jamal Kheiry. 

"However, until we are able to examine it carefully, we cannot predict timing," Kheiry said in an email. 

The sources of the odor, created by the flare gas system problems, are suspected to be hydrogen sulfide and mercaptan compounds, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Both compounds, officials said, have extremely low odor thresholds, meaning they can be smelled even at very low levels.

Jonathan Lamb, a senior environmental quality analyst for the DEQ, said at Tuesday's meeting that he will issue a violation notice for the noxious odors. The state is still evaluating whether the refinery exceeded any permitted limits.

Sheard said the refinery has removed contents of various vessels connected to the flare and expects to begin the process of deactivating the flare to make repairs.

"Sunday afternoon, we were able to remove gas material from the flare, and that’s what ultimately stopped the odors," said Sheard, adding "safety is the highest priority" and "we sincerely apologize."

"After we make the repairs we will test the flare and confirm it's safe," she said. 

President Brenda Jones pressed Marathon on its evacuation plan for emergencies and whether the company was confident that it reached all impacted people.

"My biggest concern is this: Marathon is in Detroit. Detroit should be notified as soon as something happens in that area," she said. "Detroit needs to be notified as soon as something happens at Marathon so we're on top of it. The citizens that live in that area live in Detroit and they are going to call us, so we need to know what's going on."

Council member Raquel Castañeda-López expressed "concern and disappointment" over the notification process that she believes wasn't clear, especially for those in the area who do not speak English and needed translation services. 

"It wasn't clear, and this has been a continuing request from the community way before I was even on council," said the second-term councilwoman who represents southwest Detroit's District 6. 

Sheard said Marathon has a community response and communication network, an online database that allows individuals to sign up for text and email alerts and notifications to landlines.

They sent out at least six notifications, the first within an hour of the sirens being sounded, she told Jones. 

The DEQ  has said it's coordinating with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and City of Detroit on air monitoring and response activities related to the malfunction of the flare gas system and the resulting odors.

The one hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard for is 75 parts per billion, the state DEQ said. 

Over the weekend, specific sites monitored including Fort Street, Military Street and Trinity Street measured some sulfur dioxide readings in the range of 7 to 14 parts per billion. Values in the area are typically less than 5 parts per billion, said Susan Kilmer, a DEQ air monitoring unit supervisor, in an email to The Detroit News. 

On Monday, the state said it saw values at Fort Street on Waterman in the range of 30 to 40 parts per billion, with a one-hour value at noon of 64 parts per billion. 

“The levels indicated with handheld monitors and permanent stations were far below anything that would pose a health or safety risk,” Paul Max of the city of Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department told a Detroit City Council subcommittee on Monday. 

Apart from the odor, air sampling by the EPA and Marathon hadn't detected any emissions that exceed standards. 

Detroit Health Department Director Joneigh Khaldun said Tuesday that she's reviewed data over the sulfur dioxide levels and agrees the amounts did not threaten public health. She did say, however, the odor may have caused some people to feel ill.

Council members said some residents reported nausea, vomiting and watery eyes tied to the smell. 

"The fumes in and of themselves can cause people to have nausea even if the levels don't exceed the safety hazard," Khaldun told the council. "Just like a lot of different smells, this particular smell can cause people to have that reaction."

Longtime resident Emma Lockridge lives about five streets from the refinery and says for her it's always a nuisance. The weekend incident, she said, left her feeling queasy. She's since spent a lot of time at the riverfront to escape the smell.

"Now is the time to seriously sit with us, listen to neighbors ... we need to have conversations about this," she said. "I demand to breathe. That’s what I want."

Marathon Petroleum Corp. has been the owner of the site in southwest Detroit since 1959. The flares, the company said, "are safety devices that allow (Marathon) to safely combust excess materials at the refinery."

Councilman Scott Benson said there are “millions of opportunities for something to fail” at the refinery and urged the company to consider buying out residents and allowing them to relocate away from the operation.

“It doesn’t sit well with me nor should it sit well with residents of that area,” he said. “What is it that Marathon is prepared to do to help residents of this area remove themselves from this hazard.”

David Blatnik, manager of state government affairs for Marathon, noted Tuesday that the company did buy out some neighborhoods when it expanded in 2012 “because we encroached on them.”

“At this time, we do not have another plan to buy out a neighborhood,” he said. 

Kheiry added the refinery, in its current location for 90 years, has "no plans to expand closer to any other residential areas, and have no plans for additional buyout programs."

Castañeda-López said while there should be programs offered to relocate residents, there will always be people moving into the communities near the refinery “because they have no other choice economically.”

cferretti@detroitnews.com 

Staff writer James David Dickson contributed 

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