Emma Lockridge / Al Jazeera

Detroit refinery poised to increase air pollution to make cleaner fuel

Residents say refinery’s emissions already sickening them, but state regulators say increase would still meet standards

A Detroit refinery’s plan to increase pollutant emissions — which it says it has to do to produce cleaner-burning vehicle fuel as required by new federal standards  has triggered outrage in a nearby community, where residents say the current pollution levels are already making them sick.

“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.”

She lives in Boynton, a neighborhood that abuts the refinery and is dwarfed by its towering smokestacks. Many residents say a nearly constant stream of foul-smelling, harmful emissions wafts from the facility. The smell sometimes awakens residents in the middle of the night.

State regulators have said the fumes include sulfur dioxide — a chemical the Environmental Protection Agency has said can cause asthma, respiratory illnesses and bronchitis and can aggravate heart disease, leading to increased hospitalizations and premature deaths.

Sulfur dioxide is among the eight pollutant emissions that Marathon has proposed increasing, saying it needs to do so to meet new EPA standards for the vehicle fuel the refinery produces. The other pollutants include carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds — some of which may be carcinogenic to humans — and particulate matter, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Marathon said the increased emissions would result from new equipment it must install at the refinery to produce lower-sulfur gasoline that complies with the EPA’s tier 3 motor vehicle emissions and fuel standards, which will go into effect in September 2017. The DEQ has said it is poised to approve the project.

“The project at the refinery will enable the facility to produce fuels that comply with the EPA regulation by reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from gasoline,” Jamal Kheiry, the communications manager for Marathon, said on Wednesday.

It is unclear how many other refineries across the United States will also need to increase air pollution in order to meet the new EPA standards. The EPA said it knew ahead of time that this would happen at some refineries.

"EPA conducted an analysis and found that some emissions increases at very few refineries were expected," an agency spokesman told Al Jazeera.

On the other hand, by 2030, the new standards will annually prevent at least 770 deaths by reducing air pollution, the spokesman added.

When asked about the possible health effects on nearby residents, Kheiry and the DEQ said the emissions levels would continue to meet EPA health standards.

“We take air quality in Detroit and around the state very seriously,” Lynn Fiedler, the chief of the DEQ’s air quality division, said in an emailed statement. “The emissions from Marathon may increase as a result of the proposed projects. However, the expected emissions from the proposed changes would be anticipated to be within the EPA acceptable levels.”

Fiedler’s email contained a table showing the proposed changes in emissions, including an increase of 22 tons per year of sulfur dioxide.

The EPA has already classified the Boynton area as “nonattainment” for federal standards on the pollutant — meaning the emissions were already too high and out of compliance. But the DEQ said Wednesday that state and federal air quality regulations allow increases in sulfur dioxide in an area classified as nonattainment when the increase is less than 40 tons per year.

“So the proposed projects are not subject to EPA major nonattainment new source review,” Fiedler said. 

On Tuesday, a coalition of state senators representing the Detroit area — Coleman Young II, D-Detroit; Morris Hood III, D-Detroit; Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park; and Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield — issued a statement calling on the DEQ to reject Marathon’s proposed project. 

The statement compared the situation at Marathon to that of the nearby Michigan city of Flint and its problems with lead in the drinking water.

“We already know that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has made serious errors in Flint, and they’re about to make one in Detroit,” the statement said. “The dangerous emissions and particulate matter that Marathon’s revised permits would allow are directly linked to increased asthma rates, heart attacks and early deaths.”

The DEQ was set to hold its first public comment meeting Wednesday evening as part of the review process for Marathon’s proposal. Lockridge said she and other Boynton residents would attend to voice their opposition.

Boynton is in Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, 48217. Lockridge has been pushing for Marathon to offer Boynton residents buyouts for their homes so that they can move away from the pollution.

So far, Marathon has said it has no plans to do so, even though it offered buyouts at above-market prices in the nearby neighborhood of Oakwood Heights, which is not directly in the prevailing path of emissions, as Boynton is.

Lockridge said Boynton is a predominantly black neighborhood and Oakwood Heights is mostly white. 

“They’re banking on us just leaving,” she said. “There’s 10 empty houses on my block. They’re turned over to the county because people don’t even want the houses. We can’t even get squatters.”

Poverty levels in areas near chemical plants — places often called fence-line communities — are 50 percent higher than in the rest of the U.S., with home values, incomes and education levels significantly lower than national averages, according to a 2014 report by environmental groups. Lockridge calls them “sacrifice zones.”

Such areas are often home to minority communities, leading some to call pollution in those neighborhoods “environmental racism,” the report said. Some activists allege that companies intentionally locate their plants in poor communities because they know the residents don’t have the resources to put up a fight. 

"The Detroit refinery has been in its current location since 1930, and Marathon has owned the refinery since 1959; we are proud to be neighbors with those who have chosen to make their homes near our facility over the past 55 years," Kheiry said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

Kheiry told Al Jazeera in 2014 that it offered buyouts for Oakwood Heights because it is in the refinery’s immediate neighborhood. He said Boynton was covered by Detroit’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, aimed at redeveloping foreclosed, abandoned or vacant properties.

Lockridge said no one has moved into Boynton in recent years, only out, and that empty properties are often looted and burned. For her, the message from Marathon and state regulators is clear: “Walk away or die,” she said.

Editor's note: This article was updated on Jan. 6 to include comment from the EPA

With wire services

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter