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E-M:/ Marathon Oil: Pollution a worry as refinery seeks another expansion



Marathon's aim: Infusion of gas, jobs
Pollution a worry as refinery seeks another expansion

BY ALEJANDRO BODIPO-MEMBA

A proposed second major expansion of Marathon Petroleum Co.'s refinery in Detroit holds the promise of easing the volatility of southeast Michigan gas prices and adding jobs.

But like all U.S. refinery projects, the $1-billion plan to boost production 15% by 2010 and add 135 permanent jobs and 800 temporary construction jobs faces environmental opposition even before the government approval process begins.

Michigan's only refinery sought approval Monday from the board of directors of Marathon Oil Corp. to increase refinery production from 100,000 barrels to 115,000 barrels a day. Marathon Petroleum Co. is a unit of Houston-based Marathon Oil Corp.

The proposed project would allow for the refinery to process heavy crude oil that comes from Canada's tar sands, primarily in northern Alberta. But the heavy crude has a higher sulfur content and is more difficult to process cleanly compared with so-called light, sweet crude. To accommodate the environmental challenges, Marathon said it plans to build additional sulfur extraction units at the refinery.

But Marathon Petroleum acknowledged the expansion could result in more air pollution. The company said it expects an increase of about 30% in carbon monoxide and particulates emitted into the air. Marathon, the nation's fourth-largest oil company, said it plans to buy credits for particulates from other industrial companies to further offset the impact of the increase.

"We oppose the increase of any sort of emissions into the air or water and we will weigh in during the public comment period," Abby Rubley, field director for Environment Michigan in Ann Arbor, said Monday.

When U.S. gas prices surge, one factor cited is a lack of refining capacity. The last refinery built in the United States was completed in Garyville, La., in 1976. At that time there were 315 functioning oil refineries in the country. Today there are fewer than 130 U.S. refineries and only one in Michigan.

But the Detroit facility expanded in 2005 when Marathon raised its refining capacity from 74,000 barrels a day to 100,000 barrels a day.

Some of the proposed expansion work would take place at the current refinery site off I-75 near Melvindale, and some on an adjacent 17-acre industrial parcel.

Michigan Environmental Council President Lana Pollack isn't convinced that Marathon's proposed expansion would be anything but a problem for residents in southwest Detroit and Downriver who live near the refinery.

"Refineries are notorious for polluting in terms of air and water," Pollack said Monday. "One reason that there have been no new refineries built in this country is because the siting of them is almost impossible.

"The impact falls only on people in certain neighborhoods," she said. "So people who fill up their Lexuses and Escalades in the northern suburbs have the benefit of the oil, but the people next to the refineries have increased asthma and other problems."

Dorothy Zammitt of Allen Park, owner of Lockeman's Hardware & Boats in southwest Detroit, said the proposal "is the price of progress."

"There'll be a whole lot of rules and regulations they'll have to follow, so I'm sure Marathon cares about what happens to the environment and the community," she said. "Having the storage and capacity for gas will benefit consumers who are at the mercy of automobiles that run on gas."

Angelia Graves, a spokeswoman for Marathon, said the company hopes to get approval for the expansion by the fourth quarter this year, with construction starting by the end of 2007 or early next year.

Marathon Petroleum's plans, if approved by Marathon Oil, then would require approval from multiple levels of government.

Marathon first presented its plans Aug. 9 to Detroit's Brownfield Redevelopment Authority as part of a request for an investment tax credit on the company's state business taxes. Michael Garst, a Marathon executive handling tax matters who presented the plan to the brownfield board, said the plan would give Marathon more options for the way it uses its Detroit refinery, one of seven that the company operates in the United States.

"It would take Detroit into a new level of competitiveness," he told the board.

The company also must get the go-ahead from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

"We have applied for air permits with the Department of Environmental Quality and there are also some conditional-use permits that must be applied for at the city level," Graves said.

The process would require Marathon to either augment its air and water quality permits with the DEQ or apply for new permits, depending on the size of the proposed expansion. The permit process can take several months.

"We understand the interest in providing increased refinery capacity to Michigan and the Great Lakes region," said Robert McCann, a DEQ spokesman. "If this proposal moves forward, we're going to work with Marathon to make sure the proposal is as environmentally protective as possible."

The proposed expansion could help stabilize fuel prices for Michigan motorists.

It would add about 630,000 gallons of gas a day to the Michigan market, Graves said.

"Anytime you can increase gasoline supplies it's good for consumers," said John Griffin, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan. "Especially since that product stays right in Michigan. The expansion should help with prices."

But Rubley dismissed the trade-off as unfair.

"At no point should people in the Great Lakes region have to choose between clean water and air and cheaper gasoline," she said. "And that's what these companies are forcing us to do."

Contact ALEJANDRO BODIPO-MEMBA at 313-222-5008 or abodipo@freepress.com.

 

 

Melissa Damaschke

Sierra Club Conservation Organizer

1723 West Fourteen Mile Road

Royal Oak, MI 48073

Phone:  (248) 549-6213

Website:  www.sierraclub.org/community/oakland

 

Together, we will keep the Great Lakes GREAT!