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Detroit residents demand answers about Marathon "vapor cloud" incident

Theresa Landrum lives near the Marathon oil refinery, seen in the background.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio
Theresa Landrum lives near the Marathon oil refinery, seen in the background.

Residents and activists are demanding answers about exactly what happened at Detroit’s Marathon oil refinery on Thursday.

Marathon says an “unintentional release of vapor” at the southwest Detroit facility caused it to evacuate employees, call in the Detroit Fire Department, and led to some temporary road closures. Two Marathon workers were reportedly hospitalized, and the company did not address inquiries about their condition on Friday.

“We regret the unintentional release of vapor that occurred yesterday and apologize for any inconveniences this may have caused in the local community. Air quality monitoring immediately after the release confirms no breach of safe emission levels,” Marathon said in a statement on Friday, adding that it’s “undertaken a thorough investigation of this incident, with local resources supported by corporate experts, to understand and address any necessary operational and safety changes.”

But some residents call that response inadequate, and say they want more specifics. They also point out that this is the second major incident at the facility this year. In early February, as Michigan was in the midst of an extreme cold snap, the refinery’s flare malfunctioned, permeating the area with a foul smell.

Nearby resident Theresa Landrum says that in both instances, Marathon’s emergency response system left people confused and panicked.

“Should I shelter in place, or should I get up and leave my home and take my family with me? Who do I call to notify to get out of the area? And you also wonder, what is going on?” says Landrum, who says she heard sirens and was notified about the event by robocall about an hour after it happened.

“It’s always panic. It’s always fear, of what are we enduring, what are we being impacted by now?” she says.

Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer with the Michigan Sierra Club, says the company and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy need to step up.

“This was a serious event that they’re acting like it just wasn’t a big deal,” Onwenu says. “So we want answers from EGLE, from Marathon, and we want accountability.”

Onwenu says Governor Gretchen Whitmer should get involved, adding: “We want her to be as concerned about protecting residents in Detroit as she is in regulating e-cigarettes.”

EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid says the department’s understanding so far is that a leak occurred in an internal product pipeline, causing a hydrocarbon mixture called gasoil to escape, vaporize and form the vapor cloud.

McDiarmid says EGLE is conducting an ongoing investigation, and “will evaluate the event in relation to permits, rules, and regulations of the federal Clean Air Act and Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act and take appropriate action.” The state did issue Marathon a violation noticeover the February odor incident.

McDiarmid adds that “EGLE has and will continue to be engaged with the SW Detroit community surrounding the Marathon facility. Director [Liesel] Clark toured that community earlier this year, and staff have and will continue to be involved in efforts to coordinate better communication among the company, the community, the city, first responders and regulatory agencies.”

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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