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Tonight (Thursday), the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will hold a public hearing on two ‘Permit to Install’ requests by the Marathon Petroleum Refinery operating in southwest Detroit. Marathon is asking to increase its emissions of harmful pollutants that cause asthma, lung cancer and heart disease in a city wracked by some of the highest rates of all three in the country.

The MDEQ is poised to grant Marathon permission. We oppose this. If Marathon is serious about its commitment to improvement, it will withdraw this application and reapply with emissions-reducing projects for a net overall reduction in emissions. And if the MDEQ is serious about its responsibility to protect public health in Detroit and its surroundings, it will force Marathon to do so. In the wake of Flint, the MDEQ’s actions must be considered in a new light.

As we have looked deeper into the legal and scientific basis for Marathon’s request, we have found the request, and the MDEQ’s continuing consideration of it, all the more unconscionable.

Marathon wants the changes to meet the EPA’s ‘Tier 3’ fuel standards. This would result in a net decrease in emissions, the company argues. However, Detroit shouldn’t be forced to swallow the costs of this. Even a 22-ton increase in emissions will contribute to Detroit’s asthma epidemic.

Marathon also says it will accompany the increase with changes that will yield decreases in emissions some time in the future. We applaud and support any effort to decrease emissions in Detroit, but we can’t wait. Why not simply include these additional projects under the same Permit to Install request? Such a request would result in a net decrease in emissions – something we would all surely support. Rather, Marathon’s failure to do so calls into question its intentions on following through, something it has failed to do on multiple commitments.

Increasing emissions sets a dangerous precedent: that such increases are acceptable in a city that disproportionately suffers the health consequences of pollution.

There are troubling legal and scientific issues with the MDEQ’s approach to Marathon’s request. MDEQ does not take into account the vulnerability of communities like Detroit’s. So even as citizens shared stories at the last hearing of having to wear surgical masks to fall asleep, or of harrowing trips to the emergency room with their asthmatic children, the MDEQ heard none of it. Or if it did, it had no means of registering what it heard because it does not consider the vulnerability of communities like ours. Nevermind that our asthma rates are 50 percent higher than statewide rates – it’s of no consequence to the MDEQ.

MDEQ considers each of the most dangerous pollutants separately, rather than all pollutants together. The problem with this is that science tells us that these pollutants don’t just work alone, they pack a one-two punch, tag-teaming to cause asthma, heart disease and cancer in our communities.

Detroit should not have to suffer any longer. Again, if Marathon is serious about its commitment to health in Detroit, it will withdraw this application and reapply with projects to yield net emissions reductions. And if the MDEQ is serious about its responsibility to protect public health in Detroit and its surroundings, it will force Marathon to do so.

Abdul El-Sayed is Executive Director of the Detroit Health Department.

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