Tlaib questions state’s word on Detroit air quality worries

Marathon Petroleum Co., Detroit | Wikimedia Commons
Updated at 7:15 p.m. with comments from Marathon.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) is questioning assurances from state environmental regulators that a “rotten-egg” smell in southwest Detroit is not harmful.

Rashida Tlaib at the Women’s March in Detroit, Jan. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

In an email to the Michigan Advance, Tlaib spokesman Denzel McCampbell explained a recent statement the congresswoman made in Detroit over an issue at the Marathon Petroleum refinery that led to a pungent smell.

Marathon has said the stench was caused by a malfunction with the refinery’s coke-flare system.

Officials at the then-Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)* have assured the public that the smell is not a health concern.

Tlaib disputes that.

“I’ve got a loud mouth!” Tlaib said at a Detroit protest, the Detroit Metro Times reported. “Just like in Flint, when they say the air is clean, don’t ever believe them.”

Flint | Susan J. Demas

Marathon shut down its coke-flare system this week to conduct repairs and said the smell was caused by hydrogen sulfide and mercaptan compounds.

McCampbell said the DEQ “has been under extreme scrutiny for the mishandling of environmental injustices under the [former Gov. Rick] Snyder administration” and challenged the state’s reliance on data that comes “directly from the polluting industry itself.”

“It’s well-documented how the Snyder Administration failed folks in Flint,” he continued. The DEQ has for years given preference to corporate polluters “over the voices of  residents,” McCampbell said.

Tlaib is encouraging residents “to take action if they feel something is wrong,” he added.

Marathon will begin repairing the flare system Friday afternoon and is continually sharing air quality data from ongoing sampling with the DEQ, Detroit and the EPA, according to company spokesman Jamal Kheiry.

“As a precautionary measure, we will continue air monitoring for several hours after we deactivate the flare in case there is any residual gas in the flare during the final deactivation process,” Kheiry said. “We have notified local emergency response agencies of our plans.”

Kheiry previously apologized for the smell on behalf of Marathon.

Gov. Rick Snyder at his year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

DEQ spokesman Scott Dean declined to comment on Tlaib’s statement. But data from Marathon and the federal government have not shown cause for air quality concern, according to Dean.

“Apart from the odor, neither EPA’s or Marathon’s air quality sampling detected any exceedances of health thresholds during the event,” the DEQ reiterated in a Thursday statement.

The DEQ is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Detroit officials to monitor the situation.

Marathon attributes the malfunction to extremely cold weather and is inspecting the refinery plant for other damage the cold may have caused, according to the DEQ.

* This story has been corrected to include the correct department name.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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