Michigan's tactics for cutting air pollution under fire
River Rouge — Janice Rogers' home sits about 2,500 feet away from Belanger Park, an environmental problem area that got Michigan in trouble with federal environmental regulators.
Air quality testing in 2010 showed sulfur dioxide levels were high enough to put the area out of compliance with new federal standards, forcing the state to take corrective action. Sulfur dioxide is a gas produced by the burning of fossil fuels and through other large industrial processes; it has been linked to human respiratory illnesses.
But Rogers, 54, said she knew the air was bad because she is living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which has her reaching for an inhaler once a day. And two of her grown children and one of her grandchildren have asthma.
"We're all around here struggling from (the air pollution)," Rogers said. "Most of my neighbors around here have health issues as well."
The state is working to reduce sulfur dioxide levels at five major industrial plants that produce much of the area's pollution, but critics take issue with the approach.
The two sides are scheduled to come face to face at a 6 p.m. information session and public hearing Wednesday evening at River Rouge High School. DEQ officials were forced to switch to such a large venue because of the high number of people expected to attend.
Critics argue the state should not be negotiating individual emission changes with the industrial plants, instead forcing an emissions rule on all of them.
"In the last four years, what I've noticed is many of these companies are going straight up to the executive office in the air permit process instead of going to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — the experts," said former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the recently term-limited Detroit Democrat.
State officials counter that Metro Detroit already meets one of the EPA's sulfur dioxide standards that is based on actual air testing. The region may have trouble meeting a second standard — a theoretical estimate of sulfur dioxide based on computer modeling of severe weather and high industrial production conditions, such as operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Too many people are constructing street theater around this process, with heroes and villains and victims, when it's actually pretty straightforward," DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said in response to questions. "There's a new standard for this specific air contaminant, and we're tasked with finding a way for five key contributing operators to meet that standard. We'll get there, one way or another."
The five industrial plants at the heart of Metro Detroit's sulfur dioxide problem are:
■DTE Energy's River Rouge Power Plant.
■DTE's Trenton Channel Power Plant in Trenton.
■U.S. Steel in Ecorse.
■Carmeuese Lime and Stone in River Rouge.
■DTE's EES Coke Battery plant in River Rouge.
Options to meet standards
The problems began in 2010, when the EPA tightened its national ambient air quality standards. Follow-up monitoring showed the area did not comply with the new, lower levels for sulfur dioxide the federal government expected, and Michigan was given until April of this year to create a plan for fully meeting the standards.
The state has several options for getting companies to make changes in pursuit of cleaner air, such as negotiating consent orders, drafting and implementing new rules, and issuing new permits with revised conditions. Some locals don't trust the state's handling of the situation.
Last year, DEQ officials drew up a rule change that would have gotten Metro Detroit close to a federal air quality standard. The state instead opted to negotiate with the companies on revised permits.
"What they're proposing with the permits is more than 50 percent higher (pollution standard) than what was proposed in the original rule change proposal ...," said Brad Van Guilder, organizing representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "And by allowing this sort of piecemeal process addressing the issue through permits, they are not going to achieve compliance and are not going to achieve their legal mandate."
But Wurfel and other DEQ officials stress there is an important difference between the two standards in play.
The measurable sulfur dioxide standard of 75 parts per billion — sampled at Detroit's Southwestern High School — is being met now. It's the "theoretical model" standard that currently appears to be out of reach.
"In the real world, the sources are in compliance with the new standard, and we anticipate they will remain so," Wurfel said. "We care about meeting the model, but folks in the area should keep in mind that the real air quality is protective of public health and the theoretical air quality, based on an unrealistic operating scenario, is just shy of the goal."
Permits to meet goals
Lynn Fiedler, acting division chief of DEQ's Air Quality division, said the permitting process is often faster in achieving air pollution goals than trying to force companies to meet new rules that are foisted on them. In many cases, states can spend months or years in lengthy court battles attempting to force compliance with a rule.
In recent months, Michigan has issued two permits — to EES Coke and Carmeuse Lime. The EES permit placed a cap on sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant's coke ovens, something that didn't exist before. Carmeuse will be not be required to reduce its emissions, but must vent them from a 100-foot-high stack — 30 feet higher than its current stack and designed to reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide that is concentrated in the areas surrounding the plant.
Wednesday's informational session will cover the next two permits for consideration, DTE's River Rouge and Trenton Channel plants. If approved, the two permits would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from the two plants by more than 40,000 tons a year, according to the DEQ.
Some conservation groups oppose the idea of permitting since it allows companies to continue burning fossil fuels instead of creating an incentive to move toward a different, more environmentally friendly source of power.
"We think pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades for these very old coal plants is an unwise move that will heap more costs onto Michigan families," said Andy McGlashen, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council. "DTE should be focused on making investments in clean energy to shield ratepayers from price spikes and ensure that we have affordable, reliable electricity that doesn't harm public health or our natural resources."