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Marathon to pay $82,000 in fines, invest in projects for emissions release

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Marathon Petroleum Co. will pay nearly $82,000 in fines and invest hundreds of thousands more into safeguards for the community under a proposed consent order with state environmental regulators.

The Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Energy outlined Monday the tentative $360,000 deal with the Detroit refinery that has the company installing an air filtration system at Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit, boosting its data reporting and paying penalties over an emission release last fall as well as prior incidents. 

The Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery is shown in Detroit, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. The world is awash in oil, there's little demand for it and we're running out of places to put it. That in a nutshell explains this week's strange and unprecedented action in the market for crude oil futures contracts, where traders essentially offered to pay someone else to deal with the oil they were due to have delivered next month.

“The two projects Marathon will do had community input and will provide direct benefits to students at the Mark Twain School and the community as a whole," said state Air Quality Enforcement Supervisor Jenine Camilleri. "This is the result of the community around Marathon continuing to advocate for projects to improve air quality and public health."

Marathon is pursuing the supplemental environmental project as part of the settlement based on input from the community and environmental groups, the company said in a Monday statement. 

Marathon said its "commitment to operational transparency" drove plans for a digital platform that will allow community members access to air monitoring system data. 

The agreement is a result of an incident in February 2019 when a flare system malfunction prompted the release of sulfide and mercaptan vapor. The order also covers eight emission violations on five separate events dating to 2017, the company said.

“Though we work every day to eliminate operational errors, they do occasionally occur,” David Leaver, general manager of the Marathon's Detroit refinery, said in a statement. “SEP (Supplemental Environment Project) allows us to satisfy our obligation to the state and also serve the community through projects that might not have happened otherwise.” 

The agreement comes after the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform urged federal regulators to investigate a September chemical release that sparked health worries in the community and among congressional lawmakers. 

"After decades and decades, I don't know if I would say this right here has made up for all of the difficulties that community members have faced," said Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer in Detroit for the Sierra Club, who was among a small group of residents to meet with Marathon to identify priorities.

"To a certain degree, it's a sign of good faith that things can move in the right direction if we make enough noise, put enough pressure and if we're disciplined and diligent in making sure community members are at the table where decisions are being made."

A virtual informational session on the proposed order will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 5, according to the state. A virtual public hearing is set for Sept. 2. 

EGLE, in a statement, said the order would address alleged air quality violations, require Marathon to follow a compliance program and pay the fine within 30 days of the order being finalized. The supplemental environmental projects, the school air system and real-time data reporting will total $282,000. 

The air handling system work has begun and is slated for completion on or before Aug. 31, 2021. The online platform for the public will be up and running by Dec. 21, 2020.

In February, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and Harley Rouda, a California Democrat, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to probe the Sept. 12, 2019, release and turn over findings on what was discharged and its impact on air quality. 

The request came after Tlaib and Rouda convened a packed congressional field hearing on air and water quality at a recreation center next to the refinery in September 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.

The company has said it planned to provide detailed information to the Environmental Protection Agency 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."

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.

Theresa Landrum, a longtime resident and opponent of Marathon's operations, said this marks one of the only times that refinery officials have sat down with the community to discuss the needed environmental benefits. 

"The community has suffered for a long time and industry has profited, but they have not given anything to the community that they operate in," said Landrum, who was part of the group that helped negotiate the neighborhood terms. "This is a good first step, but it's still not enough.You should be doing more. You should be working to go 100% green."

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

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. 

Onwenu said commitments outlined in the agreement are aimed at "righting wrongs."

"The health impact of pollution on children and the transparency aspect, especially around emergency response, is a major concern that we've always had," he said. "These projects definitely work to address that."

cferretti@detroitnews.com