The Marathon Refinery is bypassing safety tests during the pandemic. Here’s how local residents are responding.
DETROIT, MI — Emma Lockridge can remember a time when the southwest corner of Detroit before Mexicantown became in vogue and drew the attention of crosstown residents.
“Growing up in this area was a unique Detroit experience for us because this area was detached from the rest of the city,” Lockridge wrote in a May 2020 commentary piece for the Telegram Newspaper. “Many Detroiters did not know we existed until they built the I-75 expressway adjacent to our community.”
The separation from the rest of the city built a strong sense of community, according to Lockridge, making the neighborhood fertile ground to plant lifelong memories of Detroit’s dog days.
“Summertime in Southwest Detroit was better than any summer camp a child could attend,” she said. “The days were filled with teenaged, street corner groups perfecting their Motown songs, kids playing two-squares, hopscotch, jump rope, softball [oftentimes with a stick and tennis ball], street showers and kick-the-can.”
Sixty-plus years later, and the neighborhood has the same sense of community, under a blackened sky, thick with smog from heavily industrialized zone, largely occupied by a Marathon oil refinery. The separation from the city now created for the haves and the have-nots of the region’s clean air.
Sandra Turner-Handy, director of engagement for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the blame for the area’s poor air quality can be shared.
“I think they’re 13 active plants in and near [zip code] 48217,” Turner-Handy told The ‘Gander, adding that the Detroit salt mine, the soon-to-close US Steel, and the now-closed DT E coal power plant contributed to the environmental conditions that eventually affected employees’ and residents’ health.
“We have to realize that back in the 50s and 60s, most people tried to live close to their jobs so they could catch the bus, they could walk to work, however they would get there.” Turner-Handy, 62, continued, “Who would know that years later that community which is surrounded by all these factories would have one of the highest impacts of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other debilitating illnesses.”
The 62-year-old lost two family members to cancer. They both resided in the 48217 zip code.
“The thing about that community is that a lot of the homes are generational homes handed down through your family,” she said. “People are reluctant to move because they own these homes and this is their community.”
Saving the system
Thousands of oil and gas operations, government facilities and other sites won permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions or otherwise bypass rules intended to protect health and the environment because of the coronavirus outbreak, The Associated Press has found.
The Trump administration paved the way for the reduced monitoring on March 26 after being pressured by the oil and gas industry, which said lockdowns and social distancing during the pandemic made it difficult to comply with anti-pollution rules. States are responsible for much of the oversight of federal environmental laws, and many followed with leniency policies of their own.
AP’s two-month review found that waivers were granted in more than 3,000 cases, representing the overwhelming majority of requests citing the outbreak. Hundreds of requests were approved for oil and gas companies, including Marathon Refinery. AP reached out to all 50 states citing open-records laws; all but one, New York, provided at least partial information, reporting the data in differing ways and with varying level of detail.
Almost all those requesting waivers told regulators they did so to minimize risks for workers and the public during a pandemic — although a handful reported they were trying to cut costs.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the waivers do not authorize recipients to exceed pollution limits. Regulators will continue pursuing those who “did not act responsibly under the circumstances,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in an email.
But environmentalists and public health experts say it may be impossible to fully determine the impact of the country’s first extended, national environmental enforcement clemency because monitoring oversight was relaxed. “The harm from this policy is already done,” said Cynthia Giles, EPA’s former assistant administrator under the Obama administration.
EPA has said it will end the COVID enforcement clemency this month.
Refinery giant Marathon Petroleum, which operates its Detroit-area refinery in what is now Michigan’s most polluted zip code, already struggling financially before the pandemic, was one of the most aggressive in seeking to dial back its environmental monitoring.
“Now, more than ever, it is important for [emissions] testing to be implemented because of the high rate of death associated with residents of that community during the pandemic,” Turner-Handy said.
On the same day EPA announced its new policy, the Ohio-based company asked Indiana officials for relief from its leak detection, groundwater sampling, spill prevention, emissions testing and hazardous waste responsibilities at its facilities statewide.
Indiana declined to issue a comprehensive waiver but agreed to consider individual requests.
Marathon also pushed for and was granted permission to skip environmental tests at many of its refineries and gas stations in California, Michigan, North Dakota and Texas.
Spokesman Jamal Kheiry said Marathon sought broad regulatory relief early in the pandemic, when it was uncertain how long lockdowns would last or how its operations would be affected. But the company continued emissions monitoring and other activities and usually met deadlines, he said.
Michigan isn’t fighting alone
Almost every state reported fielding requests from industries and local governments to cut back on compliance. Many were for activities like delaying in-person training or submitting records by email rather than paper. Others, however, were requests for temporary exemptions or extensions on monitoring and repairs to stop the flow of harmful soot, toxic compounds, disease-carrying contaminants or heavy metals, AP found.
Regulators, for example, waived in-person inspections at parts of a former nuclear test site in Nevada, switching to drive-by checks.
North Carolina allowed Chemours Co., which is cleaning up dangerous PFAS industrial compounds in drinking water, to pause sampling of residential wells because it would require entering elderly residents’ homes.
The AP’s findings run counter to statements in late June by Susan Bodine, EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement, who told lawmakers the pandemic was not causing “a significant impact on routine compliance, monitoring and reporting” and that industry wasn’t widely seeking relief from monitoring.
A separate analysis of EPA enforcement data shows 40% fewer tests of smokestacks were conducted in March and April compared with the same period last year, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a network of academics and non-profits.
Hewitt, the EPA spokesman, said the agency did not know why there were fewer tests but pointed to the plunge in economic activity accompanying the pandemic, and said closed facilities would have been unable to test smokestacks.
Oil and gas companies received a green light to skip dozens of scheduled tests and inspections critical for ensuring safe operations, such as temporarily halting or delaying tests for leaks or checking on tank seals, flare stacks, emissions monitoring systems or engine performance, which could raise the risk of explosions.
Taken together, the missed inspections for leaks could add hundreds or thousands of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and could be making refinery work more dangerous, said Coyne Gibson, a former oil and gas engineer and a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance in Texas.
“The whole point of leak detection is to avoid people being harmed from a leak of toxic material,” said Victor Flatt, environmental law professor at the University of Houston. “If you suspend leak detection, you don’t even know if it’s happening.”
Michigan approved or was reviewing requests from several cities to delay replacing lead water pipes or testing for lead, spurred in some instances by the Flint water crisis.
Eric Schaeffer, a former director of EPA’s office of civil enforcement under President George W. Bush, dismissed assurances from governments that reducing monitoring during the outbreak wouldn’t lead to a surge in pollutants.
“It’s like saying we’re going to remove the radar guns and remove speedometers, but you still have to comply with the speed limit,” said Schaeffer, now head of the Environmental Integrity Project advocacy group. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Michigan environmental officials held an online public hearing Wednesday on a proposed consent order involving air quality near Marathon Petroleum’s refinery in southwest Detroit.
EGLE officials said the proposed consent order resolves violations dating back to September 2017.
Some residents living near the refinery have complained for years about pollution from the facility.
“They are our personal polluters,” Wendy Kyles told the Associated Press in 2017. She attributed her late relatives’ ailments to emissions from the site at the time of the interview. “So they should do us a personal favor and get us out of here.”
In 2016, Marathon Petroleum and the federal government reached an agreement that called for the Ohio-based company to reduce air pollution at the refinery.
“We are The Tri-Cities,” Lockridge said. “We have a shared history that is a strong foundation to come together and enhance the quality of life for everyone still living here.”
Under the proposed consent order, Marathon would spend $282,000 on two environmental projects developed with input from the community around the refinery.
The company would retrofit the air handling system at the Mark Twain School for Scholars to improve indoor air quality for students and staff, and create an online platform where the public will be able to track real-time air quality data collected at the refinery’s perimeter.
“Over the past few years I have advocated for a cleaner environment here-standing on the shoulders of some powerful environmental organizers, like Theresa Landrum, Dr. Delores Leonard, Rhonda Anderson and Vincent Carter, to name a few,” Lockridge said. “Now, some of us have come together not to dwell on the past, but to think about how to strengthen not only Detroit 48217, but Ecorse and River Rouge.”
Turner-Handy also nodded to neighborhood activism and engagement.
“One thing that it has done in that community is that it has created a lot of activism around environmental justice,” said the organizer who has spoken out against climate change and for environmental justice for nearly 15 years. “They [EGLE] have organized, they have had a very loud and strong voice.”
Marathon also would pay an $81,853 fine to the state’s general fund.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.