Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Detroit's response to refinery explosion questioned

Story originally appeared on Freep.

The Marathon Petroleum refinery explosion rocked Jacqueline Wright's Detroit home Saturday, less than a mile away. Black smoke was pouring from the tank next to Fort Street. She and her friends wondered what to do.

On the Melvindale side of I-75, the city gave word to evacuate. On the Detroit side, nothing.

"We all were nervous because we didn't know what was going on," said Wright, 46, who has lived on Patricia with her mother, father, sister and, now, her 3-year-old son, her whole life.

"We were trying to watch the news to see what they said. But nobody came around and said to evacuate. I heard in Melvindale some of them evacuated. But that was it. They didn't tell us to evacuate."

On the Melvindale side, Keisa Carter, 35, who's lived on Fairlane for 3 1/2 years, left with her 9- and 10-year-old daughters after getting the order to evacuate.

"Probably like an hour later, police came up and down the street with masks on, knocking on doors, telling them we had to evacuate and go to the ice arena," she said. "Did we evacuate in time, though? You don't know. Spooky."

Emergency officials say air quality testing showed local residents were safe from breathing toxic fumes from Saturday's explosion and fire. But the incident led the refinery's Detroit neighbors and some local officials questioning the differing response by the two cities.

Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Air Quality Division in the Detroit office; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Grosse Ile office, which responded to the scene; a Marathon spokesman and local hazmat officials say air quality monitors did not show dangerous levels of pollution from the refinery.

"Right near the tank there were some low-level air monitoring readings for contamination, as you would expect," Jeff Kimble, the EPA's on-scene coordinator said today, adding that the Downriver Emergency Response Team also took readings north and south of the explosion site. "There were no levels ... that were causing concerns."

Marathon spokesman Shane Pochard said that company employees, after the explosion, watched permanent air quality monitors and also went out into the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery with portable air monitors, testing for dangerous emissions.

"We've been doing both of those since the incident on a consistent basis," Pochard said. "We got no readings or detections anywhere."

Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, after being questioned today by Detroit City Council public health and safety commission members about the city's response, said that Melvindale "pulled the trigger too soon" on calling for an evacuation.

"As we got more into the incident and we started understanding exactly what the product was that was burning, we realized we didn't have a need for an evacuation," Austin said after the meeting. Had the Marathon explosion required an evacuation of Detroit residents, Austin said, public safety officials would've reacted quickly.

Pamela Shivers of Detroit's Homeland Security & Emergency Management office said today that wind direction Saturday played a part in where evacuations took place. She said residents should register with and monitor local news media for information on incidents like the refinery explosion.

"Detroit residents were not notified because there was never a decision to evacuate," she added in an e-mail response to inquiries.

The city of Detroit on Tuesday -- after inquires by local media -- put a document titled "City of Detroit Evacuation Plan" on the city's website. According to the plan, members of the Detroit Fire Department are one of the critical groups -- along with an incident public information officer -- responsible for notifying residents of an evacuation order.

Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib said residents in her 6th District were calling her for help Saturday, leading her to question city officials about the response.

"I sent all of them an e-mail expressing great concern that residents were so afraid and it was just chaos, people calling me, asking if they're supposed to evacuate, asking what to do," said Tlaib. . "There seems to be a lack of communication with residents."

Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Jones, who sits on the public health and safety committee, said the Marathon explosion showed the city needs to do a better job of informing residents in an emergency.

"When you have a situation that occurs such as what occurred on Saturday, the residents should be communicated to even if they don't need to evacuate," Jones said. "They need to know what's going on. They need to know there is no need for them to evacuate as opposed to silence."

That would be a welcome change for Wright and her family, she said.

"I hope that this stuff stops happening because it is kind of scary," Wright said. "And if it does, at least come let us know, let people know what's going on. Send somebody out or get it on the news, so everybody will know what's going on so we won't be scared or whatever."