How to clean up Detroit’s dirty air

Nicholas Leonard

‘This is indefensible.” Those were the words of Mayor Mike Duggan before he tore into the plan of Marathon Petroleum Co. to increase the amount of air pollution spewing from its oil refinery into Michigan’s most polluted neighborhood in southwest Detroit.

Duggan’s comments echoed the voices of residents that have long suffered the negative health impacts that come from living in an area with high concentrations of many air pollutants. However, the plan proposed for the Marathon Oil refinery this past winter was not the first of its kind.

In 2008, the Marathon Oil refinery underwent an expansion so that it could process an additional 80,000 barrels of high-sulfur oil. For the past 36 months, the Marathon Oil refinery has been in what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems to be “significant violation” of the the Clean Air Act. It has been the subject of one formal enforcement action and two lawsuits by the EPA in the past five years.

To make matters worse, this problem isn’t limited to the Marathon Oil refinery. The EPA’s list of the worst air polluters in the country includes 18 facilities that are located in Wayne County, which is far more than any other county in Michigan.

Detroit residents are suffering from extremely high levels of air pollution and the health statistics show it. The rate of cancer amongst Detroit residents is significantly higher than the state average. The rate of asthma in Detroit, which has been labeled Michigan’s epicenter of asthma, is three times higher than the state average.

In the neighborhoods surrounding Detroit’s trash incinerator at the intersection of Interstate 94 and I-75, rates of asthma hospitalizations for children are five times higher than the state average.

The problem is that there are 18 heavy polluters existing in too concentrated of an area. While common sense dictates that the cumulative affect of all pollutants must be taken into account, environmental laws regulate pollutant-by-pollutant. This effectively creates a regulatory blind spot where the cumulative affect of several high-level polluters can create a toxic mixture that, when taken together, presents a public health crisis, but when each pollutant is considered separately, are in compliance with air pollution regulations.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), in a recent permit, admitted to this blind spot and stated that it lacks a method to develop multi-pollutant standards to address the air pollution problem that exists in Detroit.

In order to effectively protect the health of its residents, the city of Detroit and Wayne County ultimately must enact its own, more stringent air emissions restrictions. While the MDEQ may be unable to adequately protect Detroit’s residents from air pollution, if the city of Detroit and Wayne County want to enact air pollution restrictions that are more stringent than the federal and state restrictions, they are legally free to do so.

In fact, the MDEQ, in addressing the problem of cumulative affects of air pollution in Detroit, has emphasized that the City of Detroit or Wayne County can develop more stringent air emissions restrictions.

To fail to do so would be indefensible.

Nicholas Leonard is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.