In Marathon's Shadow
Detroit refinery expansion adds more Canadian crude, brings more worries
Published: October 31, 2012
At the end of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, for example, lie hazy Gulf Coast cities dominated by the petrochemical industry. Last year, the mayor of Houston wrote the State Department, expressing concern that oil companies' easy access to tar sands could lead to further deterioration of air quality. Refineries in nearby Texas City and Port Arthur have expanded or are in the process of doing so.
"These communities become the sacrifice zones," said Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club's environmental justice and community partnerships director in Washington, D.C. "They will never be availed of any kind of green, sustainable, clean future. This is where [industries] are forever going to be expanding."
Health worries abound, with particular concern over asthma and cancer.
In July, the Michigan Department of Community Health announced the preliminary results of a study of 48217 and three other ZIP codes in southwest Detroit: Rates of newly diagnosed cases of cancers of the lung and bronchus were "significantly higher" than those in the rest of the state outside of Wayne County (which includes Detroit), the department said, as were death rates.
"It's like a Frankenstein lab experiment," Theresa Landrum, a community leader and cancer survivor, said of the airborne chemicals that pour from industry in or near 48217 — including volatile organic compounds, many of which are carcinogens, and sulfur dioxide, a respiratory irritant. "We actually are lab rats."
Indeed, data submitted by Marathon to state regulators shows that emissions of volatile organic compounds from the refinery increased by 36 percent from 2009 to 2011. The company declined to comment on the increase, saying only that it had obtained "all the necessary permits" for its air emissions from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The refinery expansion in Detroit had its genesis in 2007, when the City Council agreed to give Marathon a $175-million, 20-year tax abatement. The company played Detroit off two other cities in which it operated refineries, St. Paul Park, Minn., where it has since sold its plant, and Robinson, Ill. "Overall," Marathon warned in one communication with the city, "the system of property taxation is more favorable for refinery investment in Illinois and Minnesota, as compared to that in Michigan and the City of Detroit."
In exchange for the tax break, Marathon promised to create 60 full-time refinery jobs and 75 full-time contractor jobs, which, it said, collectively would add $16.5 million to the annual $74 million payroll. Even with the abatement, Marathon said, the city would reap $230 million in new tax revenue through 2030. In much the same way, the American Petroleum Institute has promoted the use of tar sands as an economic boon to the United States that would lead to thousands of new jobs.
Marathon's plan was an easy sell in one of America's most desperate urban areas. Whether it was a good deal remains to be seen.
"It can't just be about jobs," said state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents the neighborhoods around the refinery. "My residents and I feel that jobs can't fix cancer. It has to be about the fact that this massive refinery is living next to a very poor, minority community in Detroit with no real protection. When my residents hear sirens, they cross their fingers and hope it's not some sort of huge explosion.
"They don't feel like the city or the state has done everything in their power to hold the company accountable."
City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta said he was annoyed that a Marathon representative failed to appear Oct. 1 before the council's Public Health and Safety Committee, which was seeking information on a Sept. 5 refinery fire.
"They always have someone at the table when there's an issue of them applying for a tax credit or some other incentive that they want from the city," Kenyatta said. "But when it's time for the citizens to get their questions answered and their safety issues addressed, there's no one there."
In a statement to the Center, Marathon said it "did not receive adequate notification" of the Oct. 1 committee meeting. The company attended a rescheduled meeting two weeks later and described the Sept. 5 fire as small, saying one employee suffered minor injuries.
Kenyatta said he agreed to the 2007 tax abatement only after Marathon promised to share some of the economic benefits of the refinery expansion with the community.
"I think that Marathon has not been that good of a corporate neighbor to the people in southwest Detroit," the councilman said. "There were some promises made to train and hire people from the area. Based on the information I've gotten back, that did not happen."
Asked to comment, a Marathon spokesman referred a Center reporter to the company's website. The site says that Marathon, in consultation with the Detroit Workforce Development Department, "has created a workshop that will offer assistance to Detroit residents in taking pre-employment tests" and has committed to offering 10 community college scholarships per year for at least 10 years for those interested in refinery operator positions.
Marathon also says it plans to hire "as many Detroit residents ... as possible" for the 75 contractor jobs it expects to add once the refinery expansion is completed.
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