Marathon Buyouts & Coal Ash Spill

  • Linda Chernowas says she has health problems related to living in her polluted industrial neighborhood. But she says Marathon's offer isn't enough for her to get a comparable house elsewhere. (Photo by Sarah Hulett/Michigan Radio)

Michigan’s only oil refinery is offering to buy out homeowners near its Detroit facility as it wraps up a major expansion project.

As Sarah Hulett reports, some residents say they’d love to trade their polluted neighborhood for a cleaner one. But they’re not sure the deal will work for them:

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Marathon Petroleum is upgrading its refinery in southwest Detroit to be able to process heavier crude oil from Canada. And it’s expanding its operations closer to a neighborhood called Oakwood Heights.

Tracy Case is Marathon’s Michigan refining division manager. He says residents in Oakwood Heights face a unique challenge.

“The fact that you have a community that is so isolated and so surrounded, and is sort of stranded there. So it’s a problem, and you either want to be part of fixing the problem or you want to be part of the problem, and we’re choosing to be part of resolving the problem.”

The company is offering a minimum of $40,000 dollars, plus half a house’s appraised value. There’s also money to help people with moving expenses, and some other bonuses.

For some homeowners, it will be a sweet deal. But Carrie Elliott says he’ll pass.

“Not enough money. I mean, we’ve lived here 32 years. I’m too old for a mortgage.”

Homeowners have until the end of February to request an appraisal, and offers will be made over a two-year period.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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This is the Environment Report.

Earlier this week, there was a landslide at a coal-burning power plant in Wisconsin. We Energies operates the plant. On their property, there’s a ravine next to a bluff on the shore of Lake Michigan. That ravine is filled with coal ash. Coal ash is what’s left over when coal is burned to create electricity. Coal ash can contain toxic substances like arsenic, mercury and lead.

When the bluff collapsed on Monday, mud, soil, and coal ash spilled into Lake Michigan.


Barry McNulty is with We Energies.

“The vast majority of the debris including the soils and even coal ash, remain on land today. But a portion of that debris certainly spilled into Lake Michigan, which includes three vehicles, we believe, some coal ash, different soil from the bluff.”

McNulty says they don’t know how much coal ash got into the lake. He says they are installing booms and using skimmers to clean up the spill. The cause of the spill is under investigation.

“I don’t view it as a particular hazard. It’s not something obviously we want in Lake Michigan but it is not something that is a hazard to human health and the like.”

Coal ash is not currently listed as a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is regulated… but it’s regulated in different ways by different states. The EPA has proposed tighter regulations on coal ash. The regulations could require liners on coal ash storage sites and groundwater monitoring.

Tiffany Hartung is with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“It is regulated less stringently than our household waste, yet it contains all of these hazardous materials: mercury, arsenic and other life threatening toxics.”

Hartung says there are nine active coal-ash storage sites in Michigan… and another seven that are closed.

She says the Sierra Club is concerned about efforts in Congress that are attempting to stop the EPA from categorizing coal ash as a hazardous waste.

There are two proposals from the EPA. One would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and the other would regulate it like household waste.

The Senate is expected to take up the debate any day now.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.