Chang: Air quality human, not technical matter

State Rep. Stephanie Chang

Michigan’s House District 6 includes River Rouge, Ecorse and a portion of Detroit. These communities are home to some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the state. We bear the burden of high levels of air pollution from industrial facilities in Detroit, River Rouge and Dearborn. Residents of these communities suffer from higher rates of asthma and cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory diseases are quite common as well due to the long-standing air pollution issues in the region.

In December 2015, I wrote to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about my concern over its proposal to deregulate toxic chemicals that have not yet been tested for potential negative public health effects. Now, barely a month later, on Jan. 6, they held a public comment meeting on two Marathon Oil permit requests to install new equipment that could lead to greater air pollution in House District 6 – including particulate matter that leads to severe respiratory issues and sulfur dioxide, a substance for which our region already fails to meet federal standards.

The MDEQ’s Air Quality Division is proposing approval of these permits because it says that any increased emissions, specifically at the Marathon Refinery, would fall within allowable federal and state limits. It is mind-boggling to me that our state would approve a permit that includes these increased emissions, especially when we do not yet even have an approved plan for coming into compliance for sulfur dioxide. Marathon is not the only entity polluting air – and this is a big reminder why we need to consider the impact of emissions from multiple sources when we look at a new permit request. We should be doing a cumulative impact study for any new permit that is requested so that we can actually address pollution and greater health problems for the families, senior citizens and children.

This meeting comes on the heels of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Task Force calling out the MDEQ for relying too much on “technical compliance” when it comes to water pollution, in Flint’s case, or increased emissions, in Marathon’s case. Technical compliance does not actually achieve environmental quality, i.e., clean and safe air and water, which is supposed to be the goal of the MDEQ. The task force members said “this minimalist approach to regulatory and oversight responsibility is unacceptable and simply insufficient to the task of public protection.”

I believe this is true for air quality as well. If we continue to approve permits based on technical compliance without studying the cumulative impact, as called for in House Bill 4057, which I introduced last January, what preventable harm could we be doing to our communities? The answer is we simply do not know. I am concerned that I may no longer rely on MDEQ to honestly inform me or residents living next to or downwind from an industrial facility that the air we breathe is safe — only that their permit application had the right answers to gain approval.

The residents of House District 6 — indeed, the residents of all Michigan communities — deserve better. We deserve better than air pollution that is in “technical compliance.” The health issues of the seniors, adults and children who live in these communities are well documented. And it is not at all a stretch to say that the higher rates of respiratory diseases, cancers and asthma cases are due to the ongoing and long-standing air pollution issues in the region. It’s time for the MDEQ to give real consideration to the people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding these industrial complexes and protect them, rather than just approving greater pollution that falls within “technical compliance.”

State Rep. Stephanie Chang is a Detroit Democrat.