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Detroit refinery expansion: Will Marathon learn from BP?

Proposal would creat new jobs and revenue, but at what cost?

Michigan’s only oil refinery wants to get bigger, potentially adding to air pollution in a southwest Detroit neighborhood that already is bordered by two expressways, a steel mill, a salt mine, and dozens of other heavy-duty industrial facilities.

Marathon Oil Co. wants to process heavy crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The community wants to breathe clean air. The challenge for Detroit, and older industrial areas across the region, is achieving both industrial development and a healthy environment.       

The expansion would add 15% to the refinery’s capacity, create more than 100 permanent jobs and add millions in annual tax revenue to City of Detroit coffers.   

But Marathon officials must succeed where British Petroleum (BP) failed in that company’s ill-fated attempt to expand its Illinois refinery. Marathon’s strategy includes proposing state-of-the art pollution control measures and projects to offset increases in air toxics. The goal is no net increase in pollutants.

Wary residents, state regulators and environmental groups, including MEC, will scrutinize the company’s proposed permit, which had not been filed at press time, to determine if these promises are fulfilled.

By all accounts BP, with its foray into expanding an Illinois refinery, failed miserably this summer. BP tried to expand its Whiting Refinery in Indiana.  However, a permit that would have significantly increased water pollution into Lake Michigan wilted amid a firestorm of opposition.  The company relented, promising not to increase pollutants into the lake and to study better pollution control technologies.

Marathon says it has learned from BP’s mistakes.

Marathon is spending $50 million to expand its wastewater treatment facilities, which discharge into Detroit’s wastewater treatment system.  Marathon believes its new treatment plant will not discharge additional pollutants into Detroit’s system.

Of greater concern to many area residents is air pollution from the plant.  Smoke and dust from the refinery and nearby facilities pose real dangers to people with heart problems, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.  Marathon Oil knows its facility will emit more of some air pollutants but is trying to offset those by reducing air pollution from other sources in the community.   

This is where Marathon has been paying close attention to the BP process.   Even though Marathon knows it could get air permits that technically comply with the Clean Air Act, public resistance to the facility may grow if air pollution in the community gets worse.  Environmental and community activists will examine this portion of the permit very closely.  The question is not whether the permit complies with the law, but whether the air is going to be easier to breathe after the expansion.      

Everyone’s goal is the same: Creating new well-paying jobs and bolstering urban redevelopment while reducing pollution that already weighs heavily on community residents.

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