April 18, 2016

Battle Over Detroit Air Quality Won — But Not the War

Detroit Free Press Editorial Board April 7, 2016
As Reprinted in the Record-Eagle April 14, 2016

An oil refinery in Detroit wanted to increase the amount of the pollutant sulfur dioxide it releases each year. Residents — with help from the City of Detroit and Wayne County — pushed back. Now, the Marathon Petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit has agreed to amend its permit request, promising a 20% net reduction in annual sulfur dioxide emissions.

It's a victory for Detroiters. Not just because Marathon — one of 10 polluting plants in that ZIP code — changed its plans. But because Detroit changed the narrative. Detroiters objected to the toxic soup they're expected to breathe — and this time, they were heard.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had been poised to approve Marathon's request to increase the amount of sulfur dioxide it emits — something the refinery said was necessary to meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency low-sulfur gasoline standards — but MDEQ approval wasn't even necessary, the agency revealed in January; the terms of Marathon's existing permit allow it to dramatically increase its sulfur dioxide output without new permissions.

Residents objected, as they've done before, to little avail. But this time, something changed. When the state's public comment period wasn't sufficient, the Detroit City Council hosted another meeting to allow residents to voice their concerns; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans lent their voices to the cause. Abdul El-Sayed, the dynamic new executive director of the city's health department, spoke up, as well.

And Marathon's plans changed.

A battle won, but not the war.

Residents of southwest Detroit live in Michigan's most polluted ZIP code. The Marathon refinery is just one of 10 major southwest Detroit plants that spew tons of toxic chemicals into the air each year — for the most part, in line with state and federal standards.

In part, that's because in granting permits, the MDEQ evaluates each plant in isolation. That's short-sighted. Residents breathe in a mixture of each plant's emissions, and the permitting approval process should reflect that. The MDEQ, as a task force appointed to investigate the Flint water crisis noted, must refocus itself as an agency focused first on protecting human health.

And yet, the polluting plants in southwest Detroit (in some cases, facilities that predate residences in that area) produce products most of us rely on. Controlling pollution has to be set against the backdrop of the economic and practical importance of the products those plants produce. But Detroiters' health should be the first priority.

And so the air quality in southwest Detroit still requires immediate, urgent action. Detroiters who live in the plant's ZIP code have unacceptably high rates of asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease —  among the highest rates in the state.

"It doesn’t solve a quarter of the problems folks in southwest Detroit face, but it is a really promising next step,” El-Sayed said. “I hope this is the first step of a much longer walk toward environmental justice in Detroit."
We hope so, too.

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