Environmental groups file notice to sue over air pollution concerns at Dearborn factory

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Environmental groups have taken the first steps in bringing a lawsuit against the owners of the AK Steel plant in Dearborn over a "blatant disregard" for the state and federal laws, emissions rules and neighbors. 

The Sierra Club and Environment Michigan announced Wednesday that they have sent their notice of intent to sue to state and federal environmental regulators and Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc., the Cleveland-based iron ore processing company that owns the steel site.

The filing from the groups, which are represented by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and National Environmental Law Center, serves as the initial action required under the federal Clean Air Act for a citizen enforcement suit. The Sierra Club and Environment Michigan said they intend to prove that the facility has exceeded its air pollution emission limits thousands of times over the past five years. 

A message was left Tuesday with Cleveland-Cliffs.

AK Steel in Dearborn, May 5, 2020.

“AK Steel’s blatant disregard for the law, blatant disregard for permitted emission limits, and blatant disregard for the community they operate in must and will be met with full accountability," Nicholas Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said in a Wednesday news release. “We are hopeful that the suit will bring long-needed relief to the residents of southend Dearborn.”

The letter contends that AK Steel has continually failed to comply with emission limits for lead and manganese, which are neurotoxins. In addition, the letter documents hundreds of violations of the plant’s “opacity” limits, a measure of the amount of fine particulate matter emitted. Particulate matter is associated with asthma and other health conditions and other impacts on health and mortality, the groups noted. 

The Dearborn facility has a history of poor compliance and in past years was ordered to pay fines and address emissions concerns under a federal consent order.

“For years, AK Steel has done little to reduce its harmful impact on our community,” said Samra’a Luqman, a south Dearborn resident and Sierra Club member. “After years of complaining about the impact the facility is having on our community, with few results, we are now taking matters into our own hands and demanding accountability.”

AK Steel is situated in a neighborhood near a public school. It's an area where environmental advocates argue asthma and other health conditions are widespread.

“Students deserve to learn in environments free from heavy pollution,” said Eman Ahmed, a resident and educator. “We just want AK Steel to be a good neighbor. The public health of local students, teachers and staff depend on it.”

Under the Clean Air Act, citizen lawsuits require a 60-day notice to the accused polluting company, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nick Assendelft, a spokesman with EGLE, said Wednesday the department doesn't comment on litigation that has not yet been filed. 

EGLE, he said, has issued at least 11 violation notices to AK Steel since 2019 and is in negotiations with the company on an amended consent decree to resolve some of the offenses. 

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

“There is no place for lead and other harmful pollutants in the air our children breathe,” added John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America and its state chapter, Environment Michigan. “At this point, we have no choice but to use the tools of the Clean Air Act to stop this pollution.” 

In 2015, the Justice Department ordered the former owners of the Dearborn complex, previously known as Rouge Steel, to pay a $1.35 million fine for violating the Clean Air Act as part of a consent decree which also called for the installation of filters at Dearborn schools to prevent harm to children. 

Cleveland-Cliffs entered into a merger agreement with AK Steel in 2019. The acquisition was complete in spring 2020.