Locals Team Up with Environmental Groups to Take on Polluting EES Coke Facility

SW Detroit residents and Sierra Club want the Zug Island emitter to restore and invest in clean air


Timna Axel, Earthjustice, (773) 828-0712, taxel@earthjustice.org

Mike Berkowitz, Sierra Club, Mike.Berkowitz@sierraclub.org

Nick Leonard, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, nicholas.leonard@glelc.org

Environmental groups and local activists have filed a motion to intervene in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) federal lawsuit against EES Coke, which alleges that the company has unlawfully emitted thousands of tons of harmful pollutants in a low-income community of color near Detroit. By intervening in the lawsuit, impacted community members can help ensure that EES Coke, a subsidiary of DTE Energy, will end any unlawful pollution and provide robust and specific funding to address the urgent priorities and significant health needs of frontline families.

“In my community, air polluters like EES Coke have profited for decades off making people sick,” said Theresa Landrum, who submitted an affidavit with the motion to intervene.

“Real justice for us doesn’t mean just cutting emissions here and there. It means investing in the health and recovery of the whole community, monitoring our air, and funding green projects that will benefit the children who grow up here. We deserve to have our voices in the room.”

EES Coke operates a battery of 85 coke ovens, a coal byproduct used mostly to make steel, at a facility on Zug Island. The EES Coke facility releases thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide in the overburdened River Rouge community and near the state’s most polluted zip code, 48217. Releasing sulfur dioxide into the air is known to cause harm to the environment and human health, including respiratory problems, heart attacks, and premature death.

“The level of pollution in this neighborhood can make everyday life unbearable,“ said Dr. Dolores Leonard, a member of Sierra Club who lives in 48217. “Instead of enjoying and working in my garden, I often have to stay inside and keep my windows closed. I also do not open my windows at night because I’m afraid I’ll have difficulty breathing.”

In June, the Department of Justice (DOJ) brought a lawsuit on behalf of the EPA alleging that the facility has violated the Clean Air Act by ignoring legal requirements to install pollution controls since 2014. Earthjustice and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center are representing Sierra Club, which is seeking to intervene on behalf of its local members in Southwest Detroit, River Rouge, and surrounding communities.

“The neighborhoods around this facility show higher levels of air pollution than in 95% of the state of Michigan,” said Mary Rock, attorney in Earthjustice’s Midwest Regional Office. “This is an opportunity for residents in this community to hold EES Coke directly accountable for repairing environmental and health harms.”

EES Coke’s parent company, DTE Energy, has a track record of emitting pollutants from its steel and coal power plants that disproportionately harm communities of color in southeastern Michigan. Following 10 years of litigation, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice secured a settlement in 2020 in which DTE Energy was required to provide $2.7 million in community-based environmental projects in River Rouge, Ecorse, and the 48217 zip code. Although the DOJ under the Trump administration tried to stop the agreement from moving forward, a court overruled them. In February 2021, the Biden administration decided not to appeal the case.

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