Editorial: Marathon strikes good emissions compromise

The Detroit News

Marathon Petroleum Co. has seen the light and will revise an emissions request for its southwest Detroit refinery to include a lower level of pollutants.

After backlash — including a class action lawsuit — from Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s top public health official, other elected officials and Detroit residents, the company made the right decision to find a way to reduce the emission levels in its permit request.

The EPA’s new fuel standards, scheduled to take effect next year, mandate lower sulfur gasoline. But to meet those requirements, Marathon must install new equipment to more fully process the crude oil, which in turn releases a bit more sulfur dioxide into the environment.

The amended request will commit the plant to a 20 percent reduction in permitted emission levels of sulfur dioxide, which will be about 320 tons per year. Marathon’s permitted sulfur dioxide emissions levels have been just under 400 tons per year.

The company said the net result of the new request will be a zero increase in sulfur dioxide emissions.

Adjusting the plant for lower emissions will cost Marathon $10 million.

The company likely had little choice. It sought approval for its permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality during the height of revelations the department was culpable in the Flint water contamination crisis.

Still, Marathon has been a responsible corporate neighbor, particularly given that the refinery was built in 1930, before much of the residential part of the neighborhood had developed. The refinery has emitted well below its permitted cap over the past several years: just 189 tons in 2015, 211 tons in 2014 and 265 tons in 2013.

And over the past 15 years, new technology has decreased pollution from sulfur dioxide and other materials by 70 percent.

Sulfur dioxide levels in southwest Detroit have dropped by 33 percent since 2010, according to a recent report from MDEQ.

The refinery supports at least 500 jobs, and produces refined petroleum critical to state’s manufacturing and industrial core.

The revised plan will likely be approved, as state officials indicated in November: “(DEQ’s) Air Quality Division has evaluated these proposals and made a preliminary determination that they will not violate (DEQ) rules or National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”

The MDEQ is also reviewing residents’ comments related to Marathon’s permit request. But no time frame for the decision has been set.

Detroit’s public health director Dr. Abdul El-Sayed said the city likely will also approve the plan.

Marathon’s Detroit plant is critical to the state and to the region. It’s in the best interest of residents throughout Michigan — and notably those who live closest to the plant —that a compromise has been reached to both protect health and allow the refinery to continue its work.