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Detroit Refinery, Owned By Marathon, Reveals Another Side Of The 'Tar Sands Oil' Debate

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DETROIT REFINERY MARATHON TAR SANDS
File photo. The Detroit Marathon Oil Refinery was enhanced last year to process more heavy crude oil. (Getty) | Getty Images

The debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline has bubbled up again, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calling the State Department's environmental impact analysis of the proposed project "insufficient." But concerns about the so-called "tar sands" heavy crude oil it would carry aren't restricted to the pipeline's proposed route from Alberta, Canada to Texas.

On April 20, protesters gathered in the central Michigan city of Marshall, where a pipeline owned by a company called Enbridge spilled 800,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. The demonstrators came from as far as Detroit to oppose "tar sand oil" and to demand a cleanup of the river.

It's not surprising Detroiters would be among the crowd. The Motor City is now a major destination for that particular type of petroleum, due to a recent $2.2 billion expansion of a Marathon Oil refinery that allows the facility to process more heavy crude oil from tar sands.

While the enhancement has created an estimated 135 jobs, it's also increased the capacity of the company's Detroit facility from about 106,000 barrels-per-day to 120,000 -- much to the chagrin of local environmentalists. After hearing about the project, Theresa Landrum, an environmental justice activist who lives near the facility, researched the anticipated emissions and was disturbed.

"We found terrible things. Carcinogens, carbon monoxide, benzene and toluene, which harm the nervous system, methyl ethyl ketone, which can cause blindness. A lot of really bad stuff," she said in a Sierra Club release.

Marathon has taken measures to control the plant's air quality. In April 2012, it agreed to a settlement with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice to install state-of-the-art controls on combustion devices known as flares and to cap the volume of waste gas at its refineries.

The company touts the Detroit facility's environmental stewardship on its website, noting that it's the first in the world to receive a Responsible Care 14001 certification for its health, environment, safety and security systems from the American Chemical Council. It's also been honored with an award for workplace safety and health excellence by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But Marathon's practices are still not without controversy. The company has bought up homes in the low-income neighborhood surrounding the plant in an effort to alleviate concerns and create a buffer zone. It's located in an area designated by a 2010 University of Michigan study as Michigan's most polluted zip code (48217).

Last September, Marathon was cited with a nuisance violation by the DEQ after residents complained of an "overpowering odor," according to Mother Jones.

More recently, residents have been concerned about huge black piles appearing along the Detroit River. They're made up of a material known as petroleum coke, or petcoke, that originates from the Marathon facility and is being sold to a company called Koch Minerals LLC.

Marathon said that since they do not own either the petcoke or the property where the mounds of the petcoke were dumped, they are not responsible for moving it.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted tests on the petcoke, following concerns expressed by U.S. Reps. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) and John Conyers (D-Detroit), but found them not to be hazardous.

Not satisfied with these results, State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) collected samples for independent testing last month and is now waiting on the results. She's also concerned about the potential for polluted stormwater to flow into the Detroit River, although DEQ Water Resources Division spokesman Andrew Hartz told the Detroit News last week that the piles are being managed to prevent that sort of runoff.

"The piles are higher than before and with the increase of rain," she said in an email to The Huffington Post. "I have no idea how anyone could argue that petcoke on the banks of the Detroit River is safe."

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