Improving Air Quality in Detroit: Marathon Oil, U.S. Steel, and the MDEQ

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) held an unpublicized meeting on April 12 at the U.A.W Local 387 in Flat Rock for DTE Trenton Channel’s SO2 emissions permit. The meeting discussed the closure of a number of the factory’s boilers in an attempt to bring southwest Detroit back into attainment for air quality. Supervisor of Air Quality Evaluation, Barb Rosenbaum and Division Chief, Lynn Fielder led the session discussing the terms and conditions of the permit and inviting comments from the attendees. An explanation was disclosed by the MDEQ for the missed deadline to submit a bill to the Environmental Protection Agency last year. Most of the delay, if not all, was due to the U.S Steel Company, also called “The 800-pound gorrilla,” by former Michigan Senator Rashida Tlaib.

In my last installment of the southwest pollution crisis in The Mirror News, I profiled the Marathon Oil Company and examined their contributions to Michigan. I also investigated a lawsuit by the local residents and Mayor Duggan’s promise to sue The Marathon Oil Company if it were granted a permit to allow its refinery in Detroit to release increased levels of sulfur dioxide. After further investigation, I found that the lawsuit against the oil giant would solve no more than three percent of the pollution if the permit were denied. According to emissions measured reviewed by the MDEQ, Marathon’s Detroit refinery contribute to about three percent of the “non-attainment” status in the area. That’s a fraction compared to 67 percent by the steel industry. U.S Steel has MDEQ scrambling due to their resistance. That’s another aspect to take into consideration; MDEQ does not do the pollution testing for Michigan factories; they only review data from private parties. Those parties are employed by the factories and then the data is handed for analysis to MDEQ.

“We simply do not have the time to test for each company out there,” says Stephanie Hengesbach, meteorologist of the Modeling and Meteorology Unit. “However we have monitors to test the air ... we review the accuracy of the data that is given to us.” As explained to me by Barb Rosenbaum, the Air Quality Department realized that southwest Detroit has been at non-attainment status since 2013. They have been trying to bring the refineries in the area to comply, operating with precise data that will comprehensively bring the area back to EPA air quality standards. Although I only mentioned sulfur dioxide, this could also reduce nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ammonia, and lead. With this in mind, 48217 is not the most polluted zip code in Michigan as was reported earlier; in fact, Belding, Michigan is underpublicized for a high amount of lead in the air. However, that does not minimize the severity of the pollution southwest Detroit is exposed to due to sulfur dioxide emissions. “I just buried a one year old child who died of asthma,” an attendee stated during the meeting. “That’s not normal, especially since the children of that family are also suffering from asthma.”

I interviewed resident of southwest Detroit and professor, Robert Denman who has lived in 48217 since 1996. He says he is bothered by sore throat and sinus congestion and very seldom opens the doors and windows.

“I would like Marathon to be more responsible in what they’re putting out there,” he says. “There are capable restrictions they could do if they put out the money.”

Denman and his wife lived in southwest Detroit until she passed away from leukemia. Cancer rates are above average for the residents in the area and it isn’t only due to the emissions from the factories.

“Actually 90 percent of it [cancer] are from diesel and high automobile traffic,” explained toxicologist Doreen Lehner. “When you have a city with high traffic, you find many health related problems.”

A new, authoritative focus is now in place by Michigan Senator Stephanie Chang as well as former Senator Rashida Tlaib on The U.S. Steel Company. Because of the company’s defiance of the MDEQ, the department officials were forced to withdraw the choice of either complying with a permit or a rule. The difference of each are time and possible negotiation but U.S Steel must now endure a rule that will fix them to an 85 percent reduction rate, more than any other in the area. The rule is handed to a separate, bipartisan legislative committee known as the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. According to Tlaib, she was assigned JCAR when she was in office but was never needed until now.

“If JCAR does not meet, that rule automatically takes into effect which is great news.” she states.

What could this mean to southwest Detroit residents in the long term? Hope is critical for progress.

“We had to fight for voting rights and desegregation for many years, we don’t just give up,” Rashida explains. “Now we’re fighting for environmental rights.”

I questioned why the Mayor of Detroit would devote his time to suing The Marathon Oil Company when it should be directed to the larger cause of the problem. As it turns out, U.S. Steel is located on Zug Island in River Rouge territory and is off limits to the public. Mayor Duggan does not have authority over the River Rouge territory and so U.S Steel continues to emit vast amounts of illegal pollutants in the air.

This is my last installment of the pollution crises in southwest Detroit for the Mirror News. On a final note, this series has been an attempt to bring awareness to the public of the environmental issues impacting metro-Detroit residents.

For future news and meetings, follow me on Twitter @sandelwoad.

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