Tlaib urges EPA to investigate chemical leaks at Marathon Petruleum in southwest Detroit

click to enlarge Marathon Petruleum. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Marathon Petruleum.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform are calling for a federal investigation into a pungent chemical leak that hospitalized at least two people at the Marathon oil refinery in southwest Detroit in September.

“While there are conflicting reports about what occurred, there is reason to believe that this incident may have endangered the health and safety of Marathon employees, first responders, and the surrounding communities,” Tlaib and Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., wrote in a letter urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate.

Two Marathon employees were hospitalized, and two others were treated at the scene after what appeared to be a vapor cloud caused by a hydrocarbon mixture on the afternoon of Sept. 12.

Residents said they weren’t notified until nearly an hour after the refinery reported the leak to the Detroit Homeland Security Emergency Management Office at 1:38 p.m.

Tlaib and Rouda want the EPA to investigate the refinery’s efforts to alert local, state, and federal agencies, why there was a delay in notifying residents, and what Marathon did to contain the leak and limit the impact on air quality. They also want to know what contaminants were released and details about each person who suffered health effects from the leak.

“This recent incident underscores the need for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action to address chemical pollution and to safeguard the health and safety of Americans and our environment,” Tlaib and Rouda wrote.

Tlaib and Rouda also sent a letter to Marathon CEO Gary Heminger, requesting details of each chemical leak that has occurred in the past decade. The letter also asks for mitigation measures, corrective actions, and a list of employees who were injured during each leak.

“During a tour of the community near the Detroit facility, local residents also told the Subcommittee members that Marathon does not inform residents of the community about the chemicals released after an incident,” Tlaib and Rouda wrote. “If true, this is highly concerning to the Subcommittee since we believe it is important for residents of Detroit to be aware of any particulate matter and/or vapor release that can affect their health.”

Just four days after the leak, members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing at the Kemeny Recreation Center, just a stone's throw from Marathon, to address chronic pollution. Emma Lockridge, a 66-year-old African-American cancer and kidney transplant survivor who was born near the refinery, explained in heartbreaking detail what it’s like to live near Marathon.

“I want you just to imagine, if you will, being asleep at 3:30 in the morning, and all of a sudden you start coughing, you get choked,” Lockridge testified. “And then your own coughing wakes you up, and you don’t have a cold. And then your nose alerts you to the fact that there are chemicals in your bedroom, and you can’t breathe, and they smell toxic, and they are choking you. These are the emissions that we have experienced as an ongoing presence in our homes from Marathon Petroleum Corporation over the years.”

Marathon sprawls across 250 acres and produces up to 140,000 barrels of oil a day, pumping out hundreds of tons of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide in 48217, a predominately Black ZIP code that is the most polluted in Michigan. The ZIP code was featured in a Metro Times cover story about environmental racism. Today, the refinery emits 29 different types of toxins, which waft across neighborhoods and put residents at an elevated risk of cancer, respiratory disease, asthma, and liver failure, according to the EPA. The refinery also emits at least eight chemicals known to cause cancer, including benzene, dioxin, and lead compounds.

The September leak was at least the second at Marathon in 2019. In early February 2019, a nauseating stench like rotten cabbage descended on nearby neighborhoods, and residents complained of vomiting, troubled or labored breathing, and irritated eyes and throats. The smell was so intense that some residents dialed 911 in a panic, afraid the stench may be from a dangerous chemical. According to the EPA, the plant emitted more than 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide after a gas flare malfunctioned and a propane line ruptured.

Marathon said the stench likely came from methyl mercaptan, a flammable chemical that can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory distress, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

Six residents filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, saying the city of Detroit failed to warn residents about the potential harm. Conversely, the neighboring cities of Dearborn and Melvindale informed residents about the incident, according to the complaint.

Soon after the September leak, a coalition of residents and activists urged the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to launch a formal probe to determine what happened.

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