House committee asks EPA to launch investigation into Marathon vapor emission

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is asking federal environmental regulators to undertake a formal investigation of a chemical release at Marathon Petroleum Co. in September that sparked health worries in the city's southwest community. 

In a Thursday letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, vice chairwoman of the subcommittee on environment, and Harley Rouda, a California Democrat and the subcommittee's chairman, asked the agency to probe the Sept. 12 release and turn over findings on what was discharged and its impact on air quality. 

U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Harley Rouda of California listen to witnesses during a congressional hearing concerning air and water conditions in southwest Detroit at the Kemeny Recreation Center in Detroit in September.

"While there are conflicting reports about what occurred, there is reason to believe that this incident may have endangered the health and safety of Marathon employees, first responders and the surrounding communities," the letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said. 

The request comes after Tlaib and Rouda convened a packed congressional field hearing on air and water quality at a recreation center next to the refinery with a five-member panel of residents and environmental advocates. 

The two-hour hearing was held just after Marathon emitted the vapor that prompted an evacuation of the facility and worried residents. Last February, a flare also malfunctioned there, emitting an odor that sparked fear across the community and several others nearby.

Tlaib told The News on Thursday that she and Rouda felt it was “very necessary” to put the request on the congressional record after being asked by residents “to do more to hold (Marathon) accountable."

“What was happening on the state and local level was just not enough,” said Tlaib, who led a “toxic tour” throughout her congressional district along with the fall field hearing. 

"Marathon has not been forthcoming with these incidents. The residents have a right to have clean air. They deserve actual answers."

Marathon said it was reviewing the request by the representatives. The company said Thursday that it provided detailed information to the EPA and U.S. Chemical Safety Board after the incident and reviewed the event with the Local Emergency Planning Committee and the refinery's Citizens Advisory Panel" as part of our efforts to be transparent with our neighbors."

"In addition, when Representative Tlaib toured the plant on November 7, we reviewed the incident, our response and our plans to improve our response time with her.

"Marathon Petroleum welcomes any and all discussion about our operation at the Detroit Refinery. We regret this incident occurred and we apologize to the community for any inconvenience," said Chris Kozak, a communications specialist with Marathon.

David Leaver, general manager for Marathon, told reporters in September that the incident stemmed from a valve leak while the company was decommissioning equipment. 

The company, he said, acted quickly to notify authorities, shut the unit down and knocked down the vapors with water.

But the Thursday letter contends Marathon failed to inform local residents until after the event was allegedly resolved. 

"This recent incident underscores the need for the Environmental Protection Agency to take action to address chemical pollution and to safeguard the health and safety of Americans and our environment," it reads. 

In response to the letter, the EPA in a provided statement said only "we will respond through the proper channels."

Tlaib and Rouda on Thursday also sent a letter to the refinery, saying the chemical leaks have "alarmed members of the Detroit community."

The letter, to Marathon's chairman, demands the refinery provide by Feb. 14 a list of the chemicals emitted, mitigation measures and other corrective actions. 

Tlaib and Rouda are asking the EPA to provide a timeline of events leading up to and following the Sept. 12 leak as well as Marathon's efforts to notify state, local and federal agencies, reasons for delaying notice to residents and the efforts to contain the problem and limit impacts. 

They also are requesting all communications about the leak between Marathon and the EPA or the state environmental officials and a list of the suspected chemicals released that day. The information, they wrote, should be provided to the subcommittee by Feb. 21. 

Tlaib has noted the 48217 ZIP code in Detroit is among the state's most polluted while in the shadow of the Marathon refinery.

Rouda, during the September field hearing, cited figures from the Detroit Community Health Assessment from last year, which noted that 38% of residents in the city live in poverty — the highest rate of any major U.S. city.

Infant mortality in the city is twice the rate of the rest of the state, children have elevated levels of lead in their blood, and the life expectancy of Detroit residents is lower than the statewide average in almost every neighborhood, he said. 

In the face of criticism, Marathon officials have noted that emissions have been reduced by 80% in the last two decades and that $350 million has been invested in recent years to further lower emissions.