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Marathon taken to task at Detroit town hall over odor problems, pollution

Marathon is upgrading its Detroit refinery to process more heavy crude from the Canadian oil sands.
Adee Braun
Changing Gears
Marathon is upgrading its Detroit refinery to process more heavy crude from the Canadian oil sands.

Detroit’s Marathon refinery says it’s environmentally responsible, and a good neighbor to its surrounding community.

But some of those neighbors aren’t buying it.

Marathon defended itself at a town hall convened by the Detroit City Council on Tuesday, saying it has drastically reduced refinery emissions in the past 20 years and is well below permitted levels.

The company also says it’s responsible for just a small slice—around 3%—of total emissions within two miles of its heavily industrial corner of southwest Detroit.

The company also explained what happened in early February, when the facility emitted a strong, foul-smelling odor for at least 12 hours during an extreme cold snap.

Honor Sheard, environment, safety and security manager for the refinery, said that on January 30, the refinery suddenly lost a portion of its steam supply. That led to a partial controlled shutdown. On February 2, Marathon noticed that a propane line had thawed and ruptured and was also concerned about one of its flares, so the refinery shut down completely.

That day, it also recorded emissions of more than 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Early on February 3, Marathon started hearing about odor complaints in the area.

“This is when we identified that some of the gases from that shutdown were going through the flare and were going uncombusted,” Sheard says.

Sheard says the main culprit was methyl mercaptan, the odor added to natural gas. She insists that while the odor may have been strong, the incident never compromised air quality. The now-renamed Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did issue Marathon a violation notice over the odor and release of uncombusted gases.

“All of the samples show very good air quality throughout the duration of the events,” Sheard says.

But some nearby residents say Marathon has been anything but a good neighbor, and the odor incident was just one of a string of problems with the facility.

Erin Byrnes, a city council member in neighboring Dearborn, told Detroit council members cities need to work together to grapple with the impacts of industrial pollution in corners of their cities.

Byrnes says the lack of a notification process during the odor incident was alarming.

“We had multiple residents calling 911 in a panic based on the odor that was emitted by Marathon,” Byrnes says. “We had residents leaving their homes in the middle of the night, packing up their children, for fear of their safety, their children’s safety, their ability to breathe. This is unacceptable.”

Some residents say Marathon hasn’t done enough to mitigate the burdens it puts on the community. The facility underwent a $2.2 billion expansion several years ago to process tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. It bought out residents in a number of surrounding homes, but some complain that it left too many residents behind to suffer the effects of the expansion.

Vincent Martin says even if Marathon is within legal emissions limits, it contributes to a stew of air pollution whose cumulative impacts are unknown.

“So we’re under this illusion that we’re within safe parameters, and we don’t even know if the numbers are right,” Martin says.

Martin says Marathon and other polluters need to do more to safeguard the community’s health, like buying air filtration systems for homes.

After the February odor incident, city council members had wanted to see a notification plan to make sure the community is alerted to future similar incidents. Some council members and residents are also concerned about the lack of a formal evacuation plan for residents in case of a true emergency.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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