Sierra Club official: MDEQ, let us breathe downriver

Last month, lifelong River Rouge resident Ebony Elmore joined 250 others in standing up to corporate polluters at a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hearing. “It’s not right to let big corporate polluters dirty our air for so long and threaten the health of our families,” she said. “We deserve safe air to breathe. This is a basic human right, and MDEQ isn’t protecting us.”

She’s right. The MDEQ failed to meet an important opportunity to protect Michiganians’ health this month. Now hundreds of thousands of people will continue to breathe in toxic sulfur dioxide pollution as a result.

DTE Energy and other heavy industrial corporations have been pumping unsafe levels of sulfur dioxide into the air in Detroit, River Rouge, and neighboring Downriver communities for years. The pollution levels are exacting a serious cost on the well-being and quality of life of many residents, especially children and the elderly. The Michigan Department of Community Health has deemed this area the “epicenter of asthma burden.”

MDEQ officials were given more than a year to create a plan requiring corporate polluters to reduce their sulfur dioxide emissions. Their deadline was April 6. Last summer, the MDEQ developed a plan that went a long way toward reducing pollution, then inexplicably set that plan aside at the end of the year and allowed three major polluters to write their own permits instead.

When the MDEQ’s failure to comply with the April 6 deadline was noted, the agency’s spokesman brushed off the importance of acting quickly, and inaccurately suggested that sulfur dioxide pollution is actually at a safe level in Southeast Michigan.

Neither reality nor the law accepts the MDEQ and corporate polluters’ flimsy attempt to get around complying with the law. This is particularly true of DTE Energy, whose River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants are responsible for 80 percent of the sulfur dioxide pollution in Wayne County. The lack of concern about this important timeline is reflective of the MDEQ’s more critical failure to hold polluters accountable.

DTE’s coal plants are well past their useful lifespan, but if they get their way, they’ll continue to pump out tons of pollution from their River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants. It’s the MDEQ’s responsibility to listen to residents who are fighting back and to protect our communities and our health.

Rhonda Anderson, Detroit, a Sierra Club senior organizing representative