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Michigan poised to allow Detroit refinery to pollute even more

Marathon Oil Refinery  Oakwood Heights 

The Marathon oil refinery and the emptied Oakwood Heights neighbourhood. Photos by Brent Patterson.

On Oct. 26, 2015, the Council of Canadians visited Detroit to learn more about environmental and water justice issues there.

On that tour, local activists told us about the Marathon refinery in Detroit.

The Associated Press now reports, “Many people attending a [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] hearing have expressed opposition to a proposal allowing the Marathon refinery in southwestern Detroit to increase emissions of at least eight air pollutants [including nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfuric acid mist and sulfur dioxide]. At least 150 residents [other reports say closer to 300 people] attended the Wednesday [Jan. 6] meeting in River Rouge days after the MDEQ announced the proposal. The agency plans to consider public comments before taking final actions on Marathon’s applications.”

The Jan. 6 public meeting. Photo by Valerie Jean, a participant on the Oct. 26 tour.

The Jan. 6 public meeting. Photo by Valerie Jean, a participant on the Oct. 26 tour.

That article also notes, “The state says its analysis finds emissions increases fall within allowable regulations.” However, a Detroit Free Press article adds, “Marathon’s proposal also would increase emissions of sulfur dioxide by 22 tons per year in an area the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated as being ‘in non-attainment’ for the pollutant — meaning out of compliance with federal air pollution standards.”

Proponents argue that the refinery needs to be allowed to increase pollutant emissions so that it can produce cleaner-burning vehicle fuel as required by new federal Environmental Protection Agency standards that come into effect as of September 2017. But Al Jazeera reports, “‘You cannot sacrifice people’s lives to protect the environment’, said Emma Lockridge, who lives near the Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery in southwestern Detroit. ‘At the end of the day, they’re killing us’, she said. ‘We already can’t breathe over here, and the thought that pollution could go up and the smell — it’s too much.'”

Lockridge shared her knowledge with us on the Oct. 26 tour of Detroit.

The Marathon facility in Detroit refines about 120,000 barrels of oil per day. In November 2013, the Marathon refinery started processing 28,000 barrels a day of bitumen from the tar sands. In March 2014, Al Jazeera reported, “Companies don’t usually divulge exactly what is in the diluting agents they use [for the heavy tar sands crude], but most formulas contain volatile hydrocarbons like benzene, a known human carcinogen. …Residents said they believe the refinery’s emissions are behind the unusually high rates of cancer and other illnesses in the neighborhood because it is the closest polluter.”

The expansion of the refinery to handle tar sands bitumen has also meant the displacement of people. The tour took us to the Oakwood Heights area where people and their homes have been removed, but where tree lined streets and yards remind us that a neighbourhood once existed there. In April 2012, Michigan Radio noted, “The expansion brings the company’s new refining equipment closer to Detroit’s Oakwood Heights neighborhood. Marathon has been offering to buy homes in this neighborhood to create a buffer zone between the refinery and other residential areas.”

Lockridge has argued that Marathon should also offer Boynton neighbourhood residents a buyout for their homes, given Boynton is more directly in the path of emissions than Oakwood Heights. But Marathon has not done so. Al Jazeera reports, “Lockridge said Boynton is a predominantly black neighborhood and Oakwood Heights is mostly white.”

The Detroit Free Press has reported, “The state Department of Environmental Quality has announced it proposes to approve Marathon’s revised air pollution permits…”

The deadline to comment to them on this matter is now Jan. 29.