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Will Detroit be the next Flint?

Marathon Oil is applying to increase the level of sulfur it can emit over Michigan's most-populated city, and there's nothing Detroit can do about it.
A sign at a local restaurant reassures customers that they are not on Flint water but on uncontaminated water pulled from Detroit on Jan. 27, 2016 at Westside Diner in Flint, Mich. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty)
A sign at a local restaurant reassures customers that they are not on Flint water but on uncontaminated water pulled from Detroit on Jan. 27, 2016 at Westside Diner in Flint, Mich. 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will take public comments Thursday night on an application from an oil company to release more sulfur dioxide into the air over southwest Detroit. If the MDEQ approves, city officials will be powerless to stop it.

“The buzz is that DEQ is on the verge of approving Marathon’s request,” one city official said on condition of anonymity. “This area has the highest concentration of children with asthma in the state. People here have high rates of bronchitis, and Marathon has not exactly been a good corporate citizen. They received huge tax abatements to build their plant and have not even hired Detroiters. They have a big plant right off the freeway and you can smell the chemicals in the air. Now they’re saying, ‘Trust us, we’re going to bring our overall emissions down.'  Well prove it. Loop us into your requests.”

RELATED: Detroit and Flint, sister cities in misery

Hundreds of residents are expected to attend the 6:00 p.m. hearing, being held by the City Council at the Patton Recreation Center on the city’s Southwest side. Marathon is planning to send a representative, and local officials anticipate Keith Creagh, who took over as director of MDEQ this month after his predecessor resigned in the wake of the Flint water crisis, will be there, too. The mayor and council members are expected to speak as well, and to be unanimous in their opposition.

MDEQ is the same state agency that approved a decision by the emergency manager formerly running Flint, Michigan to switch that city’s water supply to the Flint River, resulting in widespread lead poisoning of its residents, including approximately 9,000 children under six-years-old. The managers were appointed by Governor Rick Snyder under a controversial 2011 law allowing the state to supplant local governments in more than a dozen financially struggling cities. The law was repealed by Michigan voters in 2012 only to be reinstated by the Republican-dominated state legislature a year later.

Detroit is no longer under emergency management, but the decision to allow Marathon to up its sulfur oxide emissions is entirely up to MDEQ; the city has no role in the decision. In other words, southwest Detroit’s fate, like Flint, lies in the hands of the Rick Snyder administration.

A request for comment from MDEQ went unanswered Thursday.

A two-page presentation provided by Marathon, which describes its request to install new equipment to an oil refinery that will result in what it calls “a small increase” in sulfur dioxide emissions includes the header: “We’re requesting an increase… But we’re reducing more than increasing.” It states that “At the same time we’re implementing the Tier 3 Fuels Project, we have other projects in the works that will reduce SO2 emissions from the refinery. These reductions will more than offset the increase we are requesting from the MDEQ.” The other projects are not specified.

Tier 3 fuels refer to those that meet new EPA guidelines calling for the sulfur content in all gasoline in the U.S. to be reduced by two-thirds by 2017.

Dr. Abdul El-Fayed, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and the Director of the Detroit Health Department, will speak at the public hearing, too. He said several things are wrong with the Marathon plan.

RELATED: Who’s really at fault for the Flint water crisis

“The first thing you have to consider is this is not just any increase. It’s an increase in one of the most polluted places in the state, with one of the highest asthma rates,” Dr. El-Fayed said, adding that releasing more sulfur dioxide into the air “could increase the number of people who get asthma and exacerbate symptoms among those who already have it. It’s not just about sulfur dioxide, it’s about how it interacts with other chemicals that are emitted by factories located in a vulnerable community.

“We know that the chemicals that are emitted are irritants in the lungs, so they put a lot of stress on the heart which has to pump blood to the lungs,” he said. “They can also create breaks in the DNA that can lead to cancer. Asthma and cardiovascular disease are already diseases people in Detroit suffer disproportionately. Our children suffer a 50 percent higher risk of asthma than children in the rest of the state. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has labeled Detroit the epicenter of asthma in Michigan.”

El-Fayed’s office was not consulted when Marathon put together it’s plans, even though the Detroit Health Department has primary responsibility for tracking the health of the city’s residents.

“They never reached out to us at all,” he said of the oil company, adding, “Nor did MDEQ.”

“You’d think if Marathon was interested in public health they would have reached out to the Detroit Health Health Department,” Dr. El-Fayed said. “It’s our responsibility to look out for the health of the people here. We’re responsible for the 680,000 people who live in Detroit.”

RELATED: An American Disaster: The Crisis in Flint

A communications manager for Marathon, Jamal T. Kheiry, said such consultation with local government was not required. “It’s a state permitting process and that’s the one we followed,” he explained by phone Thursday. “We are aware of the concerns that have been reported in the news media and that have been expressed by various city officials. We are always looking to reduce our emissions … and our plan will more than offset the slight increase we are requesting.”

Dr. El-Fayed insists that the company must do more than make promises.

“This is an issue of governance, and how much of a right do people have to advocate for things that promote the public health, like clean water in Flint and clean air in Detroit. We know that MDEQ has the right to dictate to Marathon to pursue other projects in their refinery that would offset the increases in sulfur dioxide emissions, but they’re not ... They’re promising they’re going to decrease their admission but there’s no bite to that promise. We want them to reapply and include that in their proposal so that they’re good to their word.”