Health Experts Demand EPA Reduce Ozone Pollution in Detroit

Earthjustice files amicus brief on behalf of two Michigan groups

Contacts

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

Nyanna Slaughter-Smith, Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action, nyanna@michigancca.com, (413) 333-6550

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A coalition of nurses, physicians, and health experts in Michigan have filed an amicus brief in a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA’s decision to weaken ozone pollution standards in Detroit.

Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action (MiCCA) and MI Air MI Health (MAMH) are asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the EPA’s decision to designate Detroit as in “attainment” of federal ozone standards. The EPA’s decision does not comply with the Clean Air Act because Detroit’s air is worse than federal standards allow. In fact, Detroit residents suffer from many health disparities as a result of living in close proximity to highways and industrial pollution sources. This decision weakens pollution controls standards that contribute to Detroit’s ozone problem.

“Health professionals see firsthand how poor air quality due to historic environmental racism leads to severe and chronic suffering,” said Kindra Weid, RN-MPH, Coalition Coordinator for MAMH. “EPA failed to protect public health with this ruling. We are asking the court to reverse the EPA’s decision before it leads to more sick people, more hospital visits, and more avoidable deaths in Detroit.”

Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, is a harmful air pollutant created when emissions from cars, power plants, and industrial facilities react in sunlight. Because ozone pollution is extremely harmful to human health, the EPA has set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone at 0.070 parts per million. When an area’s air quality exceeds this standard, the people living there are at higher risk for exacerbations of lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These health problems increase school absenteeism, reduce time outside, and cause people to miss work and other activities.

The Detroit area is considered an “asthma capital” of the US, with historically redlined communities disproportionately over-burdened by air pollution. These residents are exposed to different forms pollution from various sources through multiple pathways, leading to a cumulative impact that is harmful to their health. Yet in January 2023, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) requested that EPA change the Detroit area’s status to attainment and weaken ozone control standards.

To determine compliance with the ozone NAAQS, EGLE calculates average ozone concentrations using air quality data generated by monitors dispersed throughout the region. To show the EPA that Detroit attained the ozone standard, EGLE had to exclude air quality data generated by a monitor located in an overwhelmingly Black community near major industrial facilities. EGLE submitted an “exceptional event demonstration” to the EPA that purported to show wildfires in Canada, not Detroit’s many polluting industries and freeways, caused exceptionally high ozone pollution in that community in the summer of 2022. Excluding this data allowed EGLE to show Detroit attained the ozone standard, even though the real-life exposures of Detroit residents were, and remain, above the 0.070 ppm standard.

“It is deeply disturbing and disappointing for Michigan’s regulators to let polluters off the hook when Detroit’s air continues to get worse, particularly in Black and low-income communities on the fenceline of industrial sites,” said Elizabeth (Lisa) Del Buono, MD, President of MiCCA. “Residents can’t push a button and magically undo the harm to their health from high ozone in 2022. Detroiters deserve better.”

“It is the EPA’s job to check if the air quality in Detroit has actually improved and is safe to breathe before they ease pollution controls,” said Associate Attorney John Petoskey of Earthjustice, which represents the health groups. “When the EPA ignores science and prefers to act as a rubber stamp, it is everyday people who suffer the consequences.”

In September 2023, the EPA announced a delay on setting new ozone pollution standards until after the 2024 election. In the meantime, far too many counties across the U.S. are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

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Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action (MiCCA) is a coalition of over 400 Michigan health professionals focused on mitigation and prevention of adverse health effects of climate change through educating, empowering, and engaging health professionals, the general public, and policy makers.

MI Air MI Health (MAMH) was founded in April 2012 by representatives from 30 Michigan health organizations to give health groups a stronger voice when advocating for policies at the local, state, and federal levels that improve outdoor air quality, curb the harmful health impacts of climate change, and improve the health of children and families across Michigan.

The EES Coke Battery facility on Zug Island in River Rouge, Michigan.
The EES Coke Battery facility on Zug Island in River Rouge, Michigan. The plant is owned by DTE Vantage, a subsidiary of DTE Energy. 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. (Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance)

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