Zug Island
Steel works, petroleum coke storage and oil refining activities all have had a home on Zug Island in the Detroit River, south of downtown. (Shutterstock photo)

Environmental groups want to join a legal battle against a DTE Energy subsidiary accused of unlawfully polluting to ensure resident voices near the coal processing plant are heard. 

EES Coke Battery on Zug Island, where River Rouge and the Detroit River meet, is one of the state’s largest emitters of sulfur dioxide. The facility produces a byproduct of coal used to make steel, called coke, and in the process, sulfur dioxide is created and released into the air. 

The harmful air pollutant has been known to contribute to a number of health issues including respiratory problems, heart attacks and premature death. In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against EES Coke Battery on the basis that the company was unlawfully emitting thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide into a nearby low-income community of color.

Federal officials allege that EES Coke violated the Clean Air Act by releasing more sulfur dioxide emissions than they were authorized to, and without installing necessary pollution controls. 

EES Coke’s permit allowed the facility to emit 2,100 tons of sulfur dioxide per year, but in 2018 the company emitted 3,200 tons. In 2021, the company emitted 3,608 tons, according to the EPA. 

Now, environmental groups and activists have filed a motion to intervene in the suit, arguing they want to ensure that the voices of impacted residents are heard. Environmental law groups Earthjustice and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center are representing members of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, in a motion to intervene, filed Wednesday. 

“Asthma rates in the community where EES Coke is located are well above the state average,” said Nick Leonard, executive director for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “We think that this violation has the potential to cause serious public health consequences and our clients do too.” 

The company’s emissions add to heavy sulfur dioxide emissions already present in southeast Michigan, a region that hasn’t met federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide in more than a decade.

In the motion to intervene, Sierra Club members Theresa Landrum, Vicki Dobbins, and Dolores Leonard submitted affidavits. 

For 65 years, Dolores Leonard has lived in southwest Detroit. Her home is in the city’s 48217 ZIP code, an area often regarded as the most polluted ZIP code in the state. Her home is also within boundaries not meeting federal air quality standards. Leonard said she takes medication daily for asthma, and uses an inhaler when needed. 

In Leonard’s affidavit, she states that she has reported air quality concerns over the EES Coke facility to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, which regulates air quality in the state. 

Officials with EGLE were unavailable for comment. 

Pete Ternes, a spokesman for DTE Energy, told BridgeDetroit that the company has complied with all regulations governing operations conducted at EES Coke. 

“We remain committed to responsibly operating the plant while it continues to serve crucial industrial and civic functions through the production of coke to fuel the steel industry and the provision of over 170 jobs,” said Ternes, pointing to improving air quality in the region. 

“DTE has contributed to that progress,” he added. “Since 2014, emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter 2.5 at DTE’s Zug Island-area facilities (EES Coke and the River Rouge and Trenton Channel power plants) have decreased by 84%. This is evidenced by EGLE’s 2020 Air Quality Report,” he wrote in an email. 

In 2019, U.S. Steel, a customer of EES Coke, announced it was indefinitely idling many of its plants on Zug Island. Since the early 1900s, steel manufacturing was responsible for many of the emissions coming from the heavily industrialized island.

On Sept. 27, the federal court will hold its first scheduling conference to establish a timeline for the lawsuit. The discovery phase, when evidence is collected, has not begun yet. 

Nick Leonard said that the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is hopeful that the court will grant it the right to intervene. The Clean Air Act, he noted, gives private organizations like the Sierra Club the right to intervene in cases like this. 

“We really just want to make sure that the residents that live in those communities that have been impacted by the pollution have their say in regards to the remedies that are selected,” he said.

Remedies could include a community benefits agreement, financial penalties, changes to the facility to reduce pollution, or to develop a supplemental environmental project, which would address environmental health issues caused by the emissions violations. 

“Residents are really interested in making sure that harms that they’ve suffered are addressed,” he said.

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

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