On March 11, 2015, two hundred fifty residents of the Downriver community gathered at River Rouge High School to deliver public testimony on their experience living in some of the most polluted communities in Michigan. The sense of frustration in the room was high. “It’s not right to let big corporate polluters dirty our air for so long and threaten the health of our families,” said Ebony Elmore, River Rouge child care provider and activist. “We deserve safe air to breathe. This is a basic human right, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) isn’t protecting us.”
Wayne County is failing to meet the federal pollution limits for sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that can have adverse health effects on people in as few as five minutes. The Trenton Channel and River Rouge coal plants are responsible for 80% of the sulfur dioxide pollution in the area. At the time of the hearing, residents understood that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) deadline for a state plan to reduce dangerous sulfur dioxide emissions from industry was April 6, 2015. They expected relief from the relentless torrent of pollution they experience. The Downriver area has a long history of environmental contamination. “It’s dirty in River Rouge, and everybody here knows it. The way the air smells, and the gas flares, coal piles and smokestacks around every corner don’t let you forget. There are 52 sites of heavy industry within a 3-mile radius; 22 of these either produce over 25,000 pounds or handle more than 10,000 pounds of toxic chemical waste, putting them on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory Program,” said a recent Newsweek cover story about the region.
A year since MDEQ’s plan to reduce sulfur dioxide and protect public health should have been completed, we have seen no progress from the agency or the polluters. Instead, early this year MDEQ considered raising the sulfur dioxide emissions by over twenty tons in a permit proposed by the Marathon Petroleum Corporation. That plan failed when over six hundred people showed up to the public hearing in January delivering almost unanimous opposition. Eventually, the company backtracked and agreed to work with residents and the city to negotiate a small reduction in sulfur dioxide pollution.
The bigger problem, however, is DTE Energy, which is responsible for eighty-five percent of ALL sulfur dioxide emissions in the nonattainment area. The company has made almost no overtures indicating it is on the path to cleaning up its pollution.
A new permit request from DTE regarding their Trenton Channel plant continues to lock in the sulfur dioxide pollution levels that MDEQ had finalized in last March’s permit. While DTE is planning to shut down four coal boilers at Trenton Channel, the remaining boiler, unit 9A will emit 5,706 lb/hr – which is more pollution than that unit has actually emitted in the past. In other words, the permit requires DTE to do absolutely nothing to reduce actual emissions at the unit. The closing of four units is a significant opportunity for reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions that MDEQ and DTE are currently failing to utilize.
At the same time, DTE is proposing permits to build 5 new natural gas units. Rather than develop clean alternatives, DTE Energy is seeking to lock ratepayers into more natural gas which will carry risk and keeps us dependent on fossil fuels for another generation. As Michigan residents worry about pipelines and drilling in their communities, DTE is pushing forward with infrastructure that will depend upon those very pipelines and fracking wells. It will also not get us close to where we need to be as a society to prevent the worst effects of catastrophic global climate change. Such a proposal will continue to release significant quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, both heat-trapping gases, into the atmosphere.
Highlighting the urgency of the air pollution situation, the EPA stepped in last month, officially telling Michigan it was in violation of the Clean Air Act for failing to submit a plan to reduce sulfur dioxide. This debacle shows we need state agencies focused on a key role they are mandated to play: protecting communities.The same failures of the Flint water crisis, MDEQ negligence and inaction, have shown themselves again in this public health crisis.
Continued attention is required from residents and activists to make sure there is governmental action on SO2 pollution. The EPA can take up to two years to either ensure Michigan has a strong plan in place or alternatively, put in place a federal plan. Every day of inaction means more days of missed school or work due to asthma attacks, and even deaths. According to studies performed in Wayne County, coal power plants contribute to seventy deaths, forty-five hospital admissions, and one thousand four hundred asthma attacks annually. This price is too great for a community to bear.
Want to get involved? Send a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy: sc.org/ActInMichigan