Hundreds of community residents showed up to voice their concerns at River Rouge High School on Wednesday evening during a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) public hearing regarding Marathon Petroleum Corporation’s nearby refinery.
Olivia Saunders, 16, of River Rouge came to speak out on behalf of her community,“This city is so full of life but we’re living under a dome of pollution.”
But the State of Michigan, at multiple levels, may have already made decisions required to grant Marathon needed permits to increase emission of pollutants, making the hearings merely a technicality.
Marathon is proposing several installations on their southwest Detroit refinery site that require approval for permits issued by MDEQ. The upgrades will allow Marathon to meet increasingly stringent national standards for vehicle emissions that go into effect in 2017.
Gasoline produced by the upgraded facility will help to reduce vehicle sulfur emissions as required by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 3 motor vehicle emission and fuel standards. By 2018 this program is expected to reduce highway vehicles’ emissions by 10% across the nation.
However, locally the Marathon facility will emit more pollutants into the air of surrounding communities already shouldering the burden of the worst air quality in the State of Michigan.
Public commenters questioned whether the proposed upgrades and increased emission of pollutants are the only (or best) way for Marathon to meet new national standards.
Various elected officials and their staff were in attendance with several condemning the proposal as unjust mentioning the disproportionate effect on communities with lower income who pay the costs with their health.
Students from River Rouge High School are also deeply concerned about local effects that the increased refinery emissions will create in their community in order to meet new national standards.
Olivia Saunders and Jamya Giles are both juniors at River Rouge High School and are cadets with the state’s only Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corp (MC JROTC). When their AP English teacher introduced the public hearing topic for reading and debate they were inspired to bring their concerns to the hearing as public comments.
“The youth here don’t get to choose whether or not they smoke because they live in the second-hand smoke of the Marathon plant.” says 16-year-old Jamya Giles. “I know people with lung cancer who have never smoked a day in their life.”
Saunders also plays several high school sports and talks about the effect that the pollution has on student athletes, “You’d be surprised at how many athletes on our teams have asthma and have to sit out games or just take breaks because of it.” She adds that, “my nephew and brother also have asthma and sometimes that can make simple outings difficult.”
The students were able to share their concerns during public comment.
Earlier in the evening MDEQ’s Lynn Fiedler and Barb Rosenbaum began by explaining that while all comments will be on record, only comments that meet specific criteria may be considered in the permitting process.
“Basically they told us that by law they are not permitted to make a decision to grant or deny permits based on wide-spread community approval or disapproval” said southwest Detroit community resident Meghan Sobocienski. “So why exactly are we here if a decision has already been made?”
Many in attendance had hopes that the hearing would provide opportunities for resident voice and opinions to impact the decision-making process.
A Marathon-produced fact sheet that was distributed at the hearing indicates that MDEQ—who, according to Detroit Health Department Executive Director Abdul El-Sayed, is “largely responsible for the City of Flint’s water crisis, responsible for the lead poisoning of potentially thousands of children.”—has already reviewed and preliminarily determined that the proposed project will not violate agency policies and is also within state and national standards.
Upon official determination, Marathon would be granted the permits to begin installation of the proposed upgrades.
“So the hearing was just for comments related to the standards,” added Jamya Giles. “But just because the standards allow it doesn’t mean you should raise the pollution levels in our community. A standard isn’t worth the lives of our residents.”
Currently the project is within an extended period of public comment thru January 29, 2016.