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Public updated on Marathon deal that includes air quality upgrades for nearby school

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — State regulators on Wednesday began accepting public comment on a proposed agreement with Marathon Petroleum Co. over emissions violations. 

Officials with the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy provided an hour-long overview of the consent order that will have the company pay $82,000 in fines to the state's general fund and invest hundreds of thousands more into safeguards for the community. The overview came during a virtual presentation and public hearing,

The hearing also provided time for the community to offer comments on the plan. 

The Marathon oil refinery in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2019.

EGLE in July outlined the tentative $363,853 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 as well as paying penalties over an emissions release last fall as well as prior incidents. 

Chris Kozak, a spokesman for Marathon, said the agreement and accompanying projects resolve its infractions, including 10 violation notices dating back to 2017.

The plans to add air conditioning and filtration in the school and online access to real-time air quality data came as a result of discussions with an advisory panel composed of Sierra Club representatives, residents, Detroit City Council and the city's public school district.

Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer in Detroit for the Sierra Club, said the group supports the plan but urged the state to ensure Marathon is held accountable.

"We want to urge EGLE to make sure that this is done correctly and there aren't any corners cut," said Onwenu, who said the best quality air filters should be used in the school and a commitment to do so should be made by Marathon in writing.

"We are happy students and teachers are going to be protected. We just want to make sure this is done in the best way possible," he said.

Costs for the air quality upgrades in the school were expected to cost $226,000, and $56,000 for the air quality reporting platform, said Erin Moran, an enforcement specialist for EGLE, said Wednesday.

Marathon, she said, has since determined costs for updating ventilation in the 1950s school will likely be double.

"The new system is a significant upgrade and will greatly improve the air quality in the building," she said. 

Southwest Detroit resident Theresa Landrum also spoke during the hearing, telling state officials she'd like Marathon's responsibility for maintenance of the air filtration system to span beyond the order's five-year time table.

"We would like the maintenance to extend further than five years to ensure that the unit is maintained better and the improvement of the air quality lasts," she said. 

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

David Leaver, general manager of Marathon's Detroit refinery, has said the company works to eliminate operational errors but "they do occasionally occur."

Kozak sad the supplemental projects were undertaken in connection with the settlement of EGLE's enforcement for air quality violations but "there is no disputing the community benefits and the undeniable wisdom of investing in the community as opposed to simply paying a fine to the state of Michigan."

"This is not an isolated example but representative of the culture of collaboration that Marathon Petroleum’s leadership seeks with every community in which it operates," he said. 

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. 

EGLE said the deal will require Marathon to follow a compliance program and pay the fine within 30 days of the order being finalized.

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. 31.

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. 

That hearing was held just after the vapor emissions prompted an evacuation of the facility and led to concern from residents. In February 2019, a flare also malfunctioned there, emitting an odor that sparked fear across the community and several others nearby.

Thousands of oil and gas operations, government facilities and other sites won permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions or otherwise bypass rules intended to protect health and the environment because of the coronavirus outbreak. Marathon won permission to skip environmental tests at many of its refineries and gas stations in California, Michigan, North Dakota and Texas.

Leaver 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.

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

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

The company through its foundation has given $300,000 locally, over $50,000 of which was given from its employees directly, Leaver said. The company, he said, is doing more to engage with neighbors to change the perception of the refinery, make community improvements and address concerns.

"We're making some headway and I'm hopeful that as the years go on, we're going to be seen as a different place that has really made a difference in this ZIP code," he said. "We're becoming more and more active in the community. People need to give us a chance."

The state's Air Quality Division will accept public comment through Sept. 28.

Comments to the consent order can be submitted by mail to Erin Moran, Enforcement Specialist, EGLE, AQD, P.O. Box 30260, Lansing, Michigan, 48909-7760; via email at MoranE@Michigan.gov; or by calling (517) 284-0900.

cferretti@detroitnews.com