In Detroit, a Victory for Clean Air and Environmental Justice

We've just taken a big step forward toward correcting a major environmental injustice in this country. After 5 years of advocacy led by local residents in the City of River Rouge, just outside Detroit, the local utility announced it will retire coal plants in the community that operate without modern pollution controls and are a major contributor to the area's sky-high rates of asthma.

I traveled to the area three times over the past year, and my heart was broken by stories of mothers who lost their children to asthma attacks, school kids leaving soccer fields in ambulances, and regulators who for decades had failed these families. But community leaders were standing up and fighting back, targeting two coal plants without scrubbers that were the source of the lion's share of smog-forming pollution in the area. It was a fight that garnered national media attention, including a Newsweek cover story with the scathing title, "Choking to Death in Detroit: Flint Isn't Michigan's Only Disaster."

Then last week, Detroit Edison (DTE) announced it plans to close three of its coal-burning power plants, including the two near River Rouge, which currently account for 25% of its power generation. Pressure mounted over the past year and a half after hundreds of community members, political leaders, and clean air advocates flooded a series of hearings calling on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the sulfur dioxide levels from the coal plants that exceeded Clean Air Act limits. It was not until three weeks ago -- over 14 months after the deadline -- that the state finally submitted a plan to EPA for review.

The Sierra Club, local community advocates, and other partner organizations have been advocating for reigning in pollution from these plants on behalf of impacted communities for many years. But something happened this past December igniting the most recent push that became the tipping point for a barrage of bad press for DTE, and subsequently led to the closure of these plants.

In the final weeks of December 2015, when most families were preparing to celebrate holidays or the new year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality decided to start the comment period for a permit to allow Marathon Petroleum, a refinery in the area, to increase their sulfur dioxide emissions. The public comment period quickly ended, and a hearing scheduled for the Wednesday after New Years Day weekend did not allow the community any time to respond.

Wayne County was already suffering from sulfur dioxide pollution levels that were harmful to human health, and the coal plants were the primary culprit. Sulfur dioxide can cause serious respiratory problems, and is especially dangerous for those most vulnerable: children, seniors, and those with respiratory illnesses. According to a 2014 American Lung Association report, Wayne County has the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in Michigan, an asthma hospitalization rate that is three to six times higher than the state as a whole, and the highest state population living in poverty. Detroit's downriver communities, deemed the "Epicenter of Asthma Burden" by the Michigan Department of Community Health, have a long history of enduring the impacts of heavy industrial pollution. Another study of 29 zip codes showed that asthma hospitalization generally worsened in the city of Detroit from 2000 to 2010, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

I'll never forget standing in the auditorium of River Rouge High School at a public hearing last year and hearing the story of an eleven-year-old who died because she couldn't reach her inhaler. Another young girl described having an ambulance on site as a fixture of her childhood soccer games, and regularly forfeiting games because they didn't have enough players due to breathing problems. And I'll never forget being in River Rouge, seeing first-hand the smokestacks of those plants towering over nearby playgrounds and parks, and the deep sense of anger and frustration I felt that state regulators were allowing coal plants without the most basic twentieth-century pollution controls to operate right in the middle of these vulnerable communities.

In 2013, the EPA designated a portion of Wayne County as failing to meet federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide. The MDEQ missed the EPA's April 2015 deadline to submit a plan to address the nonattainment problem. Then MDEQ proposed a plan last summer that was, frankly, an insult to the community -- it required zero emissions reductions from the area's largest sources of sulfur dioxide: the DTE Trenton Channel and River Rouge coal plants, which produce 80% of the area's sulfur dioxide pollution.

It is, then, not hard to understand why residents and the Sierra Club's local organizers were enraged by the Marathon permit - it felt like the straw that broke the camel's back. "The community simply was not given the time to adequately provide comment," said Rhonda Anderson, Senior Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club in Detroit. "It's not the first time that multiple, complex, Detroit-area facility permits have been pushed through over the holidays, leaving those most directly affected without the chance to give input."

Over a hundred concerned Wayne County residents, local and state officials, and local environmental justice advocates gathered at a January 6th hearing to urge the MDEQ to reject the request by Marathon Petroleum, and to finally address the sulfur dioxide problem in the community. The testimony from community members was recorded by media outlets and broadcasted. The news stories the following days focused on a broken system with comment periods scheduled over holidays and local residents suffering fchronic asthma from

The Detroit City Council saw the outcry and hosted a second hearing. That hearing led to further prominent coverage of the community's outrage, including a piece by The International Business Times, which profiled a community advocate on her work to articulate the community's concerns. Then in April, after months of interviews, Newsweek released their cover story chronicling the severe health impact the emissions from these plants have had on surrounding communities.

The news coverage and community push gained steam just as the state finally submitted a plan to the EPA outlining how they planned to curb sulfur dioxide pollution. However, the plan was once again a complete and utter disappointment that failed to improve air quality in the community, and advocates were preparing to challenge it, asking the EPA to step in and implement a stronger plan.

But one week later, Detroit Edison made their announcement. DTE Energy Chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson said the company will look to replace those units, "with a mix of newer, more modern and cleaner sources of energy generation such as wind, natural gas and solar."

We still have more work to do. We will be pushing hard for clean, renewable energy to replace this coal power, and for an economic transition that provides a path forward for workers and the community. But make no mistake about it -- this announcement is a moment to celebrate, a big victory for environmental justice and clean air, and it's one that belongs to many inspiring and tireless community leaders. As we make this shift to clean energy, we need your help - join us.