Samra’a Luqman outside
Samra’a Luqman co-led a September 12, 2023, tour of automotive and steelmaking sites in Dearborn, calling for more sustainable steel production. Luqman lives less than a mile from the Cleveland-Cliffs Dearborn Works plant. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

Cleveland-Cliffs Steel Corporation has agreed to spend $100 million to reduce harmful emissions at its Dearborn Works facility in an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The facility has violated air quality laws dozens of times in recent years, posing a threat to the health of nearby residents. 

This is not the first such agreement to try to rein in pollution at the site. In 2015, Cleveland-Cliffs Steel Corporation, formerly AK Steel, signed an agreement with Michigan environmental regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address 42 state environmental violations at Dearborn Works. The company was required to pay a $1,353,126 fine, change operations to reduce pollution, and prevent future violations. 

But the agreement was proven ineffective with an additional violation being issued within six months. Cleveland-Cliffs has since had 19 additional air quality violations, according to EGLE’s online records. The company could not immediately be reached Friday for comment. 

This week the EPA announced modifications to the agreement which require the company to  invest $100 million to replace its nearly 60-year-old pollution control technology. Additionally, the company has to pay $81,380 to the State of Michigan’s general fund and provide air purifiers to local residents, at the cost of approximately $244,000. 

“Today’s announcement shows that EPA and the Department of Justice are committed to achieving cleaner air for communities across the country,” Assistant Administrator David M. Uhlmann of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said in a press release. “The changes that Cleveland Cliffs will make at its Dearborn facility will reduce harmful air pollution and improve air quality for local residents.”

The announcement came after several years of violations and testing in 2019 showed the company was exceeding its manganese and lead limits, two chemicals that can cause health problems when inhaled. Work on replacing the pollution control equipment was ongoing while the modification agreement was being negotiated, and is now complete. 

In 2021, Cleveland-Cliffs released more than one million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory

Samra’a Luqman, a resident and activist who lives less than a mile from the plant, said she has mixed feelings about the latest agreement. 

“The [pollution controls] should have been replaced in the last consent decree almost 10 years ago,” Luqman said. “So this was partially a success and a win, but it was also indicative of a failure of the state.” she said. “We could have been breathing clean air for the last 10 years.” 

In that timeframe, Luqman gave birth to a son who had to have a tumor removed, has asthma, and has had high lead levels in his blood. 

“He had high blood lead levels because he was breathing air that contained a high amount of lead and manganese. Would that have been prevented had we had [pollution controls] 10 years ago? Maybe, and I’m saddened that it didn’t occur earlier, but I am elated that it has at least occurred now.” 

Luqman said the air filters and air quality education Cleveland-Cliffs will provide will benefit the many residents who are unaware of the harm of bad air quality and can’t afford filtration systems. But she said the fines should go back to the Dearborn residents actually affected by the violations from the plant. 

people standing outside with signs
Residents and advocates for sustainable steel production during a September 12, 2023, tour of automotive and steelmaking sites in Dearborn. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

“I have a firm belief and stance that fines and penalties that are assessed and come out of a consent decree should in totality be given back to the communities that are affected by the lack of accountability or the transgressions of the past,” Luqman said. 

Currently when a company pays fines mandated in an agreement with EGLE, the funds go into the state’s general fund, and not to the community affected. But residents have long been calling for this to change. A bill sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, seeking to direct fines to impacted communities passed the Senate earlier this year and is now being discussed in the House. 

In addition to posing a threat to human health, air emissions caused by steel production contribute to climate change. Steel production is responsible for roughly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Steel Association. Nearly 2 billion metric tons of steel is produced each year and demand is expected to increase by 1.9% in 2024. 

Advocates are calling for “green steel” to address both climate and environmental injustice impacts. They promote alternatives to conventional steel production, including direct reduced iron powered by renewable energy and molten oxide electrolysis which uses electric currents to drive chemical reactions. The alternatives result in less or even zero carbon emissions. 

“Most primary steel is made using 14th-century blast furnace technology,” said Ariana Criste, senior communications strategist for Industrious Labs, a group advocating for cleaner industry. 

“The coal that it burns is really harmful to our health and the climate. There’s an opportunity to transition these facilities to slash climate pollution from steelmaking and position the U.S. as a leader in the green steel transition, but also there’s an opportunity to ensure that the toxic pollution that these facilities are spilling into neighboring communities are slashed,” she said. 

Cleveland-Cliffs has a direct reduced iron plant in Ohio, Criste said, but it’s powered by methane, instead of clean energy. 

Industrious Labs is calling on part of the $6.3 billion set aside for industrial decarbonization in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to be used for constructing green steel plants. 

In Michigan, Criste said this is the moment for the automotive industry, one of the biggest consumers of steel, to lead the push. 

“We’re already seeing automakers spur this demand outside of the U.S.,” Criste said. “[European Union] steelmakers have credited the auto industry as pushing them on the pathway to a clean transition already so U.S. automakers are really lagging behind.” 

The consent decree modification is subject to a 30-day public comment period. To view the agreement and submit comments, click here.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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