Marathon Petroleum to pay Detroit school $200K to alleviate air pollution 

Oil company will also pay $82K to state in environmental fines

Marathon Petroleum refinery, Detroit | Emma Lockridge photo

Following years of community activism, a major oil and natural gas company has now agreed to shell out more than $280,000 to begin to make things right in a notoriously air-polluted Detroit community.

Marathon Petroleum’s tentative agreement with the state will, upon the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s (EGLE) approval after a 60-day comment period, include the installation of an air filtration system in a nearby public school that has suffered from Marathon’s emissions for years.

“The two projects Marathon will do had community input and will provide direct benefits to students at the Mark Twain School and the community as a whole. This is the result of the community around Marathon continuing to advocate for projects to improve air quality and public health,” Jenine Camilleri, EGLE air quality enforcement supervisor said in a release Monday.

The consent order was agreed upon to address the company’s numerous environmental violations — 10 in total — from September 2017 to January 2020. In addition to a $81,853 violation fine, Marathon will pay $282,000 to complete two projects related to air quality control and accountability in the nearby community.

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The consent order will ultimately cost Marathon a total of $363,853.

One project will directly benefit the Mark Twain School for Scholars, the main school in the 48217 ZIP code and the closest in proximity to the Marathon sites. Mark Twain teaches around 250 Detroit Public Schools students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

Marathon operates an oil refinery just one mile down the road from the school. Another Marathon complex and a distribution center are located less than two miles away.

At the urging of community activists, Marathon has agreed to put at least $200,000 into installing a central air filtration system in the school. The goal is to reduce air pollution-related health triggers, like asthma, and improve the students’ quality of education.

Numerous studies have linked air pollution to worsened academic performance and learning outcomes for students.

According to EGLE, work on the air filtration and purification system is already underway and is expected to be completed by Aug. 31, 2021.

Mark Twain Principal Sheila Langford did not immediately return a request for comment.

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The second project Marathon will undertake is the creation of an online platform that will be used to share real-time air quality data around the refinery with the public. Advocates have been pushing for this system as a way to measure air pollution and hold Marathon accountable.

That platform is expected to be up and running by Dec. 21, 2020.

Sierra Club Michigan organizer Justin Onwenu says the agreement with EGLE is the result of years of community pressure on Marathon and the state.

“I don’t know if this makes up for all of the frustration that has been built up over decades because of the pollution, but I think it’s a step in the right direction and it reflects that the community members have power to get things changed,” Onwenu told the Advance on Monday.

Theresa Landrum, a longtime area resident who began opposing Marathon’s expansions in the community in the early 2000s, says she has “lived in the shadow of Marathon” for all of her life.

“We didn’t know why our community was sick. We didn’t know why our gardens no longer grew,” Landrum said. “[But] we knew why we washed our houses down on a daily basis: Because of the fallout from surrounding industry.”

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Landrum said Marathon’s agreement with EGLE is a first step, but emphasizes that it is just that — and there remains a long way to go to hold the industry accountable.

“They still got away without what I call murder,” Landrum said. “They were able to negotiate the fine down — $300,000 is nothing to the decades of damage that has been done. Look at all the profits they were able to give their shareholders over decades.”

Being born and raised in the 48217 ZIP code, Landrum has seen firsthand the health effects of Marathon’s harmful emissions. In addition to many family members having asthma, she is herself a cancer survivor; numerous family members and friends have also struggled with cancer or died from it over the years.

“[Marathon] has not been punished enough. The punitive damages are miniscule to the detriment that has been done to our community,” Landrum said. “Them and others – because what about the other ones that are not being brought to the table, that refused to come to the table that are doing just as much harm?”

Landrum said Monday’s tentative agreement marks the first time that a company in the industry has successfully been pressured to sit down and speak with the area’s residents and activists.

“The activism comes from us being surrounded by more than 33 heavy polluting industries that emit poisons that are harmful to our health, that are known carcinogens, that are suspected carcinogens, and some they have no information on,” Landrum said.

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“Marathon‘s not the only culprit,” she added, emphasizing that Marathon is just the first to have its feet put to the fire and forced to do something for the community.

Over the course of two and a half years, EGLE issued 10 violation notices to Marathon for exceeding certain emission limits, failing to continuously monitor flares, failing to properly vent and combust gases, emitting nuisance odors and more.

The consent order will require Marathon to follow a compliance program to prevent future violations and better monitor the refinery’s operations.

The agreement must now undergo a public comment process before it is fully finalized. EGLE will accept public comments until Sept. 28.

The department will also be hosting a virtual public informational session at 6 p.m. on Aug. 5, then a virtual public hearing at 6 p.m. on Sept. 2.

Marathon will be required to pay the $81,853 violation fine within 30 days of the consent order being finalized.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice. She is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or listening to podcasts, she loves art and design, discovering new music, being out in nature and spending time with her two very special cats.