Fire at Detroit Refinery Prompts Evacuations

April 28, 2013
-A fire that broke out at the Marathon Petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit Saturday evening prompted evacuations and raised concerns about safety and environmental hazards

April 28--A fire that broke out at the Marathon Petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit Saturday evening prompted evacuations and raised concerns about safety and environmental hazards in the area.

The fire, which started at about 6 p.m. in one of the refinery's smaller tanks, was extinguished just before 8 p.m., said Marathon spokesman Shane Pochard. No one was injured.

As thick black smoke billowed from the refinery, authorities in adjacent Melvindale went door-to-door and used Facebook to order 3,000 people, nearly a third of the city's population, to leave their homes.

Anna Widdis, 42, lives two blocks from the refinery in Melvindale and said she wasn't home when the fire started but her 62-year-old mother was when an explosion rocked their house.

"My mother said all the neighbors literally ran outside -- 'Ohmigosh, what happened?' And then the smoke got real thick and one said (to) go back inside. The air quality got real bad and that's when they told people to leave," Widdis said.

Melvindale officials ordered the evacuation of nine blocks, Mayor Stacy Striz said. To shelter the residents, officials offered the city's ice arena/civic center building.

"Because of the smoke, we had to get people out of there. We had no idea how bad this was going to get," Striz said. Melvindale has long had a tenuous tie to the sprawling 83-year-old refinery, with its high-paying jobs but also constant risk.

"We know, if Marathon goes up, we all go up," Melvindale City Councilman Wheeler Marsee said, in a gathering of city officials at the ice arena, following the all-clear signal.

About 40 residents came to the arena before the fire was contained and the air was clear enough to return to their homes, the mayor said. A powerful odor still lingered in the air near the refinery at 9 p.m., as police cars with flashing lights kept streets bordering the site closed to traffic.

No details were released on what may have caused Saturday's fire. Air quality monitoring was under way and the proper state and federal agencies were notified, said Marathon spokesman Pochard, who did not release further details. In August 2011, another fire broke out at the refinery. No injuries were reported in that instance, either.

Wayne County Commissioner Ilona Varga, whose district includes neighborhoods around the plant in Detroit and Melvindale, said she is concerned the blaze released toxic chemicals, including potential carcinogens, into the environment. She said Melvindale officers wore respirators as they evacuated residents.

"My concern is the environment, carcinogens, what they are breathing in," Varga said at a Marathon facility where the company at first gathered reporters for an update then instead referred questions to a company spokesman in Findlay, Ohio.

Varga said she plans to call Marathon's headquarters to find out why "they didn't have a spokesman (on site) to answer our questions."

Earlier in the night, plumes of water could be seen coming from two directions trying to fight the fire. Marathon's own fire crews were on the scene, along with responders from Detroit, Melvindale and other communities. Smoke could be seen for miles.

Detroit resident Sheila Neely, who lives about three blocks from the refinery on Greyfriars, said she was very upset because no one from Marathon had updated her on what was happening.

"I'm very concerned," she said. "My kids have asthma."

Based in Findlay, Ohio, Marathon Petroleum Corp. has seven refineries. In 2012, it completed a 4-year, $2.2 billion expansion of its Detroit site, allowing it to process heavy crude piped here from western Canada. About 300 Marathon employees work at the refinery, plus an additional 300-400 contract workers, said Peter Brokas, head of Marathon's security.

According to its web site, it is the country's fourth-largest refiner, and the largest refiner in the Midwest.

Copyright 2013 - Detroit Free Press

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!