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Halting Serious Air Pollution from DTE Coal-burning Power Plants

The River Rouge coal-fired power plant.

The River Rouge coal-fired power plant. Detroit Edison’s coal plants in Michigan have emitted hundreds to thousands of tons of additional harmful air pollutants every year.

Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan

Case Overview

Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, have taken legal action to support Department of Justice efforts to clean up several of Detroit Edison’s coal-burning power plants in southern Michigan by requiring them to comply with the Clean Air Act.

Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, amended its complaint in the case of US v. DTE Energy Company, to clean up Detroit Edison’s River Rouge, Trenton Channel, and Belle River coal-fired power plants. Shortly prior to this, DOJ amended its complaint to add the same claims on Trenton Channel, River Rouge and Belle River, and additional claims against the Monroe coal plant.

According to the Clean Air Task Force, these additional three coal-burning plants collectively contribute to 157 deaths, 254 heart attacks, and 2,480 asthma attacks each year.

The violations stem from Detroit Edison’s major, multi-million dollar modifications at those plants without installation of the legally-required modern pollution controls that would help protect public health. As a result of these violations, Detroit Edison’s coal plants have emitted hundreds to thousands of tons of additional harmful air pollutants every year.

Emissions from coal-burning plants include dangerous pollutants like carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury. High levels of exposure to these emissions can cause irritation of the throat and lungs, leading to difficulty breathing, increased asthma symptoms, more respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

This case was initially filed in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. EPA as an enforcement action regarding an illegal modification at Unit 2 of Detroit Edison’s Monroe coal plant. Sierra Club intervened in that proceeding. While the federal district court initially ruled against DOJ and Sierra Club, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit earlier this year reversed the district court decision. As a result, DOJ and Sierra Club’s case against Monroe Unit 2 continues, and both plaintiffs are seeking to expand their claims to address legal violations at other Detroit Edison coal units.

When Congress enacted the Clean Air Act of 1970, thousands of power plants, refineries, and other facilities were emitting large volumes of various air pollutants. The act required new facilities to be equipped with the most modern and efficient pollution-control technologies available. Many existing plants were let off the hook on the theory that they would be taken out of service fairly rapidly and replaced with new, clean plants. The coal industry lobbied congress and the EPA to be allowed to continue running these old plants without adding modern pollution controls. As a result, many of these aging, polluting facilities are still operating today, over 40 years later.

The law did, however, include important provisions addressing the older plants: If and when they make changes that increase emissions, they are required to retrofit with up-to-date technologies. This is a key part of what the law calls the New Source Review (NSR) program.

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