Backyard Talk

Trouble at Marathon: Detroit Residents Tormented by Tar Sands Refinery

A black plume of noxious gas enveloped adjacent neighborhoods after a fire broke out at the Marathon Detroit Refinery on April 27th. Residents of nearby Melvindale were evacuated by town officials after the fire was designated a Level 3 Hazard. However, residents of Detroit received no immediate warning nor a call for evacuation by the city of Detroit, sparking outrage by the affected, predominantly African American community.  Residents complained of a lingering “foul egg smell” as well as general irritation in breathing, a local Fox station reported.

“The Marathon oil refinery fire was ultimately not a Level 3 Hazardous Materials incident, although that was the initial declaration based on preliminary information,” Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin told the Detroit News. Officials are still testing air quality post-explosion. An environmental justice organizer at the Michigan Sierra Club Chapter, Rhonda Anderson, worries about a potential misreading of the samples taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The EPA did not arrive until after the fires had already been contained.” Anderson said by telephone, “This is the data the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality chose to go on”.

Since 2001, Marathon has racked up 13 air pollution violations by the MDEQ, including a nuisance violation for a continuing overpowering odor reported by community leaders. “We found terrible things. Carcinogens, carbon monoxide, benzene and toluene, which harm the nervous system, methyl ethyl ketone, which can cause blindness. A lot of really bad stuff,” local activist and cancer survivor Theresa Landrum reported.

In a 2011 study, Professor Paul Mohai from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment investigated air pollution around Michigan schools and its potential impact on academic performance in children. The study concluded that schools located near areas of heavy industry faced an increased chance of children developing neurological damage — in turn affecting academic performance– after exposure to high levels of air pollutants common to the burning of fossil fuels.

Marathon specializes in processing a type of heavy crude from Canada known as tar sands, which a study by Forest Ethics found releases heavy quantities of sulfur dioxide, a chemical associated with respiratory illness. The study referenced a 2010 EPA investigation of the local sewer system adjacent to the refinery, “finding cancer-causing chemicals benzene, toluene, and hydrogen sulfide,” known byproducts of tar sands refining and the  source of complaints of respiratory problems by nearby residents.

In 2012, Marathon completed its Detroit Heavy Oil Upgrade Project, a $2.2 billion expansion of its refining capacity; raising its input of Canadian heavy crude to an additional four hundred barrels a day. Marathon has also taken it upon itself to buy out local homeowners to build “green spaces,” an effort some suspect was designed to placate locals furious over the expansion. The Detroit Free Press noted many residents have sharply criticized the program, claiming the “purchasing agreement would bar them from suing Marathon for any future health problems.”

Marathon’s torment of the community is not an issue unique to Detroit. Rather, it is part of a larger problem of poor regulation of refineries that continues to make the lives of low-income families a low priority. The looming decision on whether the Keystone XL pipeline will win approval by the President will decide the fate of many communities near refineries, because the pipeline would bring heavy crude from Canada through the Midwest to Texas.

Residents of Port Arthur, Texas, have long battled the Valero Refinery, which like Marathon processes heavy crude. Hilton Kelley, head of Community In-power and Development Association (CIDA) and a life-long resident, said more tar sands crude would lead to “a serious increase of sulfur dioxide in our community.”

“This is what happens when you roll back regulations on safety,” Kelley said by phone. “These people don’t really care about the welfare of our communities”.