A district court ruled today to allow an environmental group and community members to intervene in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) federal lawsuit against EES Coke. The lawsuit alleges that the company’s Zug Island coke oven facility unlawfully releases thousands of tons of harmful air pollutants into predominantly low-income communities of color in Southwest Detroit, Ecorse, and River Rouge. By intervening, community members who’ve been directly impacted by the facility’s emissions can seek to hold EES Coke accountable for mitigating further pollution and funding specific local benefits.
“This is a major win for those of us who keep our windows closed and carry inhalers because of the fumes coming from EES Coke,” said Dr. Dolores Leonard, a member of Sierra Club who lives in Southwest Detroit. “Any and all financial penalties should be invested in the harmed communities rather than captured by government.”
Earthjustice and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center are representing the Sierra Club, which is intervening on behalf of local members in Southwest Detroit, River Rouge, and the state’s most polluted zip code, 48217.
“We’re very happy that the court has granted our motion to intervene and that local residents who have been impacted by EES Coke’s pollution will be able to pursue justice,” said Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “A key principle of environmental justice is that impacted residents must be allowed to speak for themselves, and now they can do that in this case.”
EES Coke is a subsidiary of DTE Energy that operates a battery of 85 ovens to make coke, a coal byproduct used mostly to produce steel. One of the air pollutants emitted by the coke oven facility, sulfur dioxide, is known to cause respiratory problems, heart attacks, and premature death. The facility pumps sulfur dioxide into the surrounding neighborhoods, which show higher levels of air pollution than in 95% of the state of Michigan.
“You can see the story of environmental racism written on all the steel and coal power plants here in southeastern Michigan,” said Theresa Landrum, a member of Sierra Club who lives in the 48217 zip code. “While it’s great to see the EPA taking this first step suing EES Coke, we’re here to make sure that community members have a voice in the outcome.”
In similar cases, community members have won specific measures including pollution controls, electric public transit and school buses, and air filtration systems for schools or public buildings. The court is currently weighing a motion for summary judgement on the EPA’s claims against EES Coke, which if granted would allow the case to move forward to the stage of identifying remedies.
“The community members near this facility have said loudly and clearly that they want local relief for this pollution,” said Earthjustice Attorney Mary Rock. “We hope this court process moves quickly so we can get to the remedies without delay.”