Marathon refinery to spend $5M to buy out homes in SW Detroit neighborhood

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

When Emma Lockridge looks of out the back window of her home in her southwest Detroit neighborhood, she sees the six-lane freeway of Interstate 75, 18-wheelers shaking her house as they drive by, and right behind that, the Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery. 

For years, Lockridge has dealt with poor air quality on Patricia Street in the Boynton neighborhood.

The Rollercade Skating Rink is a staple in the Boynton neighborhood in Southwest Detroit where Marathon Petroleum is investing $5 million to revive the community by removing abandoned homes and creating additional green space.

That may change now that Marathon announced Thursday plans to spend $5 million buy up homes and clear them out to create a two-block-wide buffer between the refinery and residential areas.  

Lockridge says she'll be able to leave her industrial neighborhood and move to a less-populated area.

"This is important because ... we have what's called a cumulative impact out here," said Lockridge, an environmental activist. "Sadly, Detroit 48217 has become known as the most polluted ZIP code in the state of Michigan because of the high concentration of facilities. So, you have not only, say, an emission from the refinery, you have a cumulative of all of these (facilities) sort of mixing up."

Marathon plans to create green space as a buffer between the residential areas and the refinery. The plans mean Marathon is fulfilling longstanding requests by many of the refinery’s neighbors for the company to buy them out so homeowners can relocate. 

Surrounded by heavy industrial facilities, the community is just west of the Detroit Water and Sewage Plant, about three miles from Zug Island and separated by a freeway from the Mill Steel Co. 

University of Michigan researchers have labeled 48217, which includes the area around the plant, the state’s most polluted.  

"This initiative is solely intended to create green space and improve the neighborhood, there are absolutely no plans whatsoever to expand refinery operations," said David Leaver, general manager of the refinery. 

Homeowners and renters on Edsel and Patricia will be eligible to participate in the buyout. Residents must sign up for the initiative between Feb. 1 and June 1 and can opt out any time.

Appraisals and offers will start in March. Base price of $70,000 for the homes will be offered, plus half of the appraised value of as well as compensation for relocation and lawyer fees, Leaver said.

Including 40 abandoned homes from the Detroit Land Bank, Leaver said Marathon hopes to buy and tear down 80 homes in the community. According to Detroit's neighborhood website, there are 3,040 houses in the area. 

"This initiative will usher in a new generation of activity, with the stabilization of the community that we love, it will change attitudes as well and it is a great example of a public-private partnership." said 6th State House District Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit.

In February, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and other elected officials asked federal environmental regulators to conduct a formal investigation of a chemical release at Marathon in September 2019 that sparked health worries in the community. 

The investigation led to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy ordering Marathon to pay $82,000 in fines to the state's general fund and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars more into safeguards for the community, including a $363,853 deal that has the company installing an air filtration system at Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit. 

Lockridge said she's been advocating for a better quality of living in her neighborhood for the past eight years. In April 2018, Lockridge and some of her neighbors went to a Marathon shareholders meeting in Ohio and demanded a meeting with the chairman. 

"This has evolved into what it should look like when a corporation is located within a community. We should have these kinds of relationships, and I'm very proud to say that we have established a relationship with Marathon Petroleum moving forward," Lockridge said. 

Marathon, which bought the refinery in 1959, offered a similar buyout program in 2012, when it's expansion moved its fence line closer to Oakwood Heights, making the neighborhood into a residential island surrounded by industry and the Rouge River. Of 294 properties identified in the 2012 program, 266 owners participated, The Detroit News reported.