Conservation groups took legal action late last week to support the Department of Justice (DOJ) 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 U.S. v. DTE Energy Company, to clean up Detroit Edison’s River Rouge, Trenton Channel, and Belle River coal-fired power plants. Earlier last week, 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 River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants are aging dinosaurs that Detroit Edison continues to operate without readily available and legally required pollution control technology,” said Shannon Fisk, an Earthjustice attorney handling this case. “It is far past time for Detroit Edison to protect public health and create jobs by cleaning those plants up or retiring and replacing them with affordable clean energy resources.”
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.
“When I think about clean and renewable sources of energy, I think about the infinite possibilities of creating jobs and powering Michigan through cleaner sources like wind and solar power,” said Douglas Myers, River Rouge resident and Sierra Club member. “If DTE were to focus on forward thinking in the problem areas we could remove a lot of the dirty and harmful elements being emitted through their current facilities.”
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.
“Big coal has fought against NSR with respect to existing plants ever since the program was created,” continued Fisk. “It has filed many lawsuits to challenge the program and simply refused to abide by it.”