DTE permits for Dearborn turbines for Ford site OK’d

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Environmental activists in southeast Michigan have lost their battle to stop the state from approving a request from DTE Energy Co. to build two natural-gas-fired turbines in a southern area of Dearborn.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on Friday approved a permit for DTE to construct the turbines despite calls from activists and residents to delay the process and conduct health studies.

Critics argued Dearborn already is overburdened by pollution from other plants and that people at nearby schools, homes and health care facilities could be exposed to more toxic emissions. They had asked the state to delay approving the permit until further health studies on air quality were done.

MDEQ officials say they reviewed public comments and concluded that DTE’s request met all of the requirements for a permit.

DTE’s turbines will be part of the company’s new infrastructure in a facility that will power Ford Motor Co.’s Research and Engineering Center as it transforms into a green, high-tech campus. Other systems will include natural air flow ventilation and geothermal heating and cooling.

“It’s a real disappointment for communities that are overburdened by environmental contamination,” said Michelle Martinez, statewide coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “Michigan is in the midst of a rush to natural gas. And environmental justice communities are the loser in the equation.”

The turbines are expected to produce emissions that include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.

Those emissions have been tied to health issues, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and prenatal development problems, according to research by the partnership Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments.

The Dearborn community, Martinez said, is already home to a number of industrial facilities such as U.S. Steel and Ford’s assembly plant.

MDEQ permit engineer Catherine Asselin said DTE plans to start construction soon on the turbines, which will be located at 1641 Carroll Shelby Way East.

“We did make some changes based on community members concerns,” Asselin said. “... And plan on addressing more concerns about the area and health at a town hall event.”

One change included requiring DTE to conduct stack testing four times within a 12-month period following the initial startup of the operation. Citizens had submitted comments to the state saying there should be more testing than once every five years for particulates and carbon monoxide and once a year for nitrogen oxides.

DTE officials say the project will benefit customers because it improves air quality, enhances energy reliability and reduces air emissions. Air emissions, the company says, will be significantly reduced because less efficient technologies are being replaced by infrastructure with newer, cleaner technologies at Ford’s Dearborn facilities.

For example, the gas-fired electric turbines generate power and steam and use less natural gas than the existing boilers, according to DTE. Ford currently operates five boilers that provide steam to the center. Those boilers have not received any violations in the last 11 years from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, state officials say.

DTE spokesman Peter Ternes said the new turbines will replace the existing boilers.

The project, he said, will “meet all health standards and is protective of human health and the environment.”

Amy Schulz, professor of public health at the University of Michigan, said the turbines will be located in an area that has high levels pollution. It is close to several schools and a hospital. Children and hospital patients are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of pollution, Schulz said.

Pollution is often the cause of asthma attacks, heart attacks and heart disease, she said.

“The concern is that this is adding to a mix of air pollutants that is already quite high where the facility is going,” Schulz said.

Schulz’s research shows that air pollution is responsible for 690 deaths and 1,800 hospitalizations each year in Metro Detroit.

Martinez said she planned to meet with the MDEQ to find out why the state did not take her recommendation of conducting a health impact assessment. The coalition is advocating for companies to not only conduct the studies but consider renewable energy options such as solar rays and wind power.

“We are committed to building a clean energy economy for people to go to work and not put all their paychecks toward their healthcare bills,” Martinez said. “The full cost for Michigan families is never truly assessed, and it’s a problem.”

Dearborn is above the national average in asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic kidney disease, especially near the Ford Rouge Plant, where the new DTE gas plant is expected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2015, 13 percent of adults older than the age of 18 in districts near existing Dearborn plants had asthma, 12 percent reported chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 3 percent had chronic kidney disease. West Dearborn reported nearly half of all the disease percentages.

Bob Sills, MDEQ toxics unit supervisor, said the MDEQ is concerned about overall air quality and standards have improved and become more restrictive since 1970.

“There are more than several unhealthy days, we know there’s room for improvement, and we’re not there yet,” Sills said during a community meeting earlier this month. “We know there’s asthma in the community. There are emissions that pollute whether it’s home gas or pollutions. We account for those admissions. Everything has shown the impacts will be lower concentration. Still, there are going to be days where it’s unhealthy for some.”

Karima Alwishah, a south Dearborn resident, said she believes DTE and Ford are not holding themselves accountable to the community. Alwishah said she is concerned about raising her 3-year-old son near an industrial area.

“I feel like every night when I go to sleep I think ‘is he going to have asthma?’” said Alwishah, 22. “When he’s sick, I wonder if it’s triggered by the pollution or if he’s going to grow up healthy. It’s very frustrating.”

Dave Norwood, Dearborn’s sustainability coordinator, said, in a statement on behalf of Mayor John O’Reilly Jr., the city was committed to the health and welfare of its neighborhoods and supported the partnership between Ford and DTE Energy Co.

“Reimagining and reinvesting in its central and engineering campuses reflect the foresight and stewardship that Ford clearly displayed with its unprecedented conversion of the Rouge Plant,” Norwood said.

“Like that project, we will expect Ford Motor Company and its partner, DTE Energy, to pursue its plans for a new CHP facility with the utmost concern for the neighborhoods and schools that are in proximity to this facility. To us, this means making concerted efforts to reduce emissions and pollutants to levels that are below existing limits and below those currently proposed.”