Marathon to fund projects in southwest Detroit to settle refinery emissions violations

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Marathon Petroleum Co. will invest more than $500,000 into community projects and pay the state nearly $82,000 in fines as part of a consent order finalized this week to settle emissions violations.

The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy on Wednesday released the final terms of its agreement with the southwest Detroit refinery that includes an anticipated investment of $539,000 into environmental safeguards for the neighborhood in the 48217 ZIP code.

The Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery is shown in Detroit, Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

The agreement, signed Jan. 22, lays out costs that exceed what was an anticipated $360,000 investment in a tentative deal from August. The order was effective on Monday. 

The majority of the supplemental funding — or about $500,000 — will go toward installing an air filtration system at Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit. The school is located about two miles from the refinery in the community that ranks among the state's most polluted. 

"The project will improve air quality in the classrooms, which has been proven to directly impact the cognitive development of students," the agreement reads. 

Another $39,760, the agreement notes, will be used for air monitoring and to boost data reporting. The refinery's fines stem from emissions releases in the fall of 2019 as well as prior incidents. The payment must be submitted to the state by March 1.

"It's been a super long journey," 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.

"I don't think it's everything, but it's a step in the right direction," he added. "It sets the tone that when communities have to deal with pollution or harm, that they deserve to see some form of justice, some form of accountability."

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

"This Consent Order resolves Marathon’s violations for failing to demonstrate compliance with their Renewable Operating Permit and state and federal air quality rules and regulations that occurred from September 2017 to June 2019," Erin Moran, of the enforcement unit of EGLE's Air Quality Division, said in a news release. 

The violations were for nuisance odor emissions, failing to continuously monitor its flares and exceeding visible emission limits and limits of particulate matter, including hydrogen sulfide among other chemicals. 

"We appreciate the efforts of both the community and on Marathon's part on working together to facilitate both of these projects," Moran told The News. 

Community members had multiple meetings with Marathon leaders and state regulators since the tentative proposal was reached in August to arrive at the final terms.

Marathon has 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 comes after the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform urged federal regulators to investigate the September 2019 chemical release of sulfide and mercaptan vapor that sparked health worries in the community and concern among congressional lawmakers. 

EGLE has said the order addresses alleged air quality violations, requires Marathon to follow a compliance program and pay the fine within 30 days of Monday's order.

Officials have said the air handling system is slated for completion on or before Aug. 31. An online platform for the public is required to be up and running by early March. 

Last February, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and Harley Rouda, a California Democrat, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to probe the 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 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 the refinery emitted the vapor that prompted an evacuation of the facility and worried residents. Months prior, a flare also malfunctioned there, emitting an odor that sparked concern in the community and others nearby.

Marathon has said that incident stemmed from a valve leak while the company was decommissioning equipment. 

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.