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U.S. Steel, state spar on reducing pollution in Ecorse

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The state’s efforts to bring one of Metro Detroit’s most polluted areas into compliance with federal environmental mandates have hit a major snag this summer because of a lawsuit.

U.S. Steel officials filed a lawsuit against the state Aug. 19, charging the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality with illegally enacting Rule 430 in June that calls for Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel to submit a plan for meeting sulfur dioxide compliance standards.

The standards were the result of the department’s successful negotiations with four of a heavily industrialized area’s five largest polluters to reduce harmful sulfur dioxide emissions. The one holdout was U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Works plant in Ecorse, which was the subject of years of talks between the company and regulators about changing the firm’s permit.

Instead of trying to meet a deadline of Wednesday to submit a plan, U.S. Steel officials filed the lawsuit that said the DEQ unfairly singled out the company with the rule.

“... (U.S. Steel) contends that MDEQ lacked constitutional statutory authority to promulgate Rule 430,” the company argued in its lawsuit. “Even if such authority exists, the deadlines specified by Rule 430 cannot conceivable be met, and the Rule is further discriminatory, arbitrary, unreasonable and prejudicial ... .”

With the passing of this week’s deadline, state officials said the matter will get resolved in the Michigan Court of Claims, where they plan to vigorously defend Rule 430.

“US Steel has known for six years that they needed to reduce (sulfur dioxide) emissions,” new DEQ Director Heidi Grether said in a statement last week. “Rather than pursue compliance in good faith, they have done everything possible to avoid making the necessary changes to reduce US Steel’s contribution to the region’s SO2 impacts.

“... Instead, they have pursued a strategy of competitive advantage over other SO2 sources. They must either come into compliance or face the regulatory consequences of inaction. This stalling must end.”

A U.S. Steel spokesperson declined to comment.

Critics argue the state should have compelled collaboration between the companies, which would have benefitted all stakeholders, including nearby residents.

Air quality testing conducted in 2010 indicated an emissions problem in an area including portions of Southwest Detroit, Ecorse and Trenton. Sustained exposure to sulfur dioxide has been linked to respiratory illnesses. Detroit ranks first among the largest U.S. cities for asthma in children.

State environmental officials identified the five largest producers of sulfur dioxide in the region: DTE’s EES Coke Battery on Zug Island, DTE’s River Rouge Power Plant on Belanger Park Drive, the Carmeuse Lime and Stone operation on Marion Avenue, U.S. Steel’s plant in Ecorse and DTE’s Trenton Channel Power Plant.

In its attempt to bring the region’s sulfur dioxide levels in line with federal mandates, DEQ officials opted to negotiate with each operation individually.

U.S. Steel powers its plant through the burning of coke oven gas that it purchases from DTE’s Zug Island. The gas contains sulfur dioxide that is released when burned.

At DTE’s plant in Monroe is equipped with technology that removes sulfur dioxide from the end product. Officials with the Sierra Club of Michigan earlier this year called on Michigan’s DEQ to compel DTE to install the technology in Detroit.

In public comment submissions to the DEQ in 2014, groups such as the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center urged to state to make that case to DTE.

“EES also fails to implement the standard industry practice of ‘flue gas desulfurization’ to its coke oven gas, which would result in lower sulfur dioxide emissions,” the group argued. EPA noted in a 2006 recommendation to the Detroit steel industry that ‘most U.S. coke plants and many foreign coke plants already desulfurize their gas, which suggests that it is affordable and cost effective.’”

State officials, however, said they can’t compel that kind of specific action, only mandate emission levels that need to be achieved.

“Whether or not to comply with performance standards is not an option for the company,” DEQ spokesman Michael Shore wrote in an email. “How to comply is solely a company decision.”

Asked why DTE does not simply install desulfurization technologies at the EES Coke Battery, a utility spokesman said the company already meets its requirements.

“The EES facility is in compliance with the (sulfur dioxide) standards, and for that reason the desulfurization technology was not required,” according to DTE.

The failure to find a combined solution for U.S. Steel and DTE leaves the matter unresolved six years after the emissions problem was first detected.