DTE Energy added to federal lawsuit over excessive pollution emissions on Zug Island

DTE Energy is now entangled in a federal lawsuit that alleges its subsidiary, EES Coke Battery on Zug Island, violated the Clean Air Act by substantially increasing its sulfur dioxide emissions and jeopardizing the health of people who live in River Rouge and southwest Detroit.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin A. Drain granted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) request to add DTE Energy as a defendant in the lawsuit filed against EES Coke in June 2022.

Environmentalists applauded the decision, saying the multibillion-dollar energy company must be held accountable for the actions of its subsidiaries. During the discovery phase of the case, depositions with EES Coke and DTE employees have revealed that DTE and two of its subsidiaries were behind the decision that led to increased pollution at the plant, activists say.

“I am relieved that DTE will not be able to hide their illegal behavior from the court,” Ebony Elmore, a Sierra Club Executive Committee member who lives in River Rouge, said Wednesday. “It’s important for everyone to understand what the court found: The emissions may come from EES Coke, but the orders come from DTE Energy.”

Over the past decade, the plant has emitted thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, a dangerous air pollutant that can cause asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, according to the EPA. Short-term exposure can cause difficulty breathing, stomach pain, headaches, nausea, vomiting, fever, and irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that disproportionately affects Black Detroiters.

The coal-powered plant manufactures coke, a key ingredient in steel production. During the process, it generates what the EPA refers to as “coke oven gas,” which can be used as fuel. When burned, this gas releases sulfur dioxide. The battery plant can utilize this fuel in other facilities, power its own operations, or burn it off in a flare.

click to enlarge Zug Island is the site of pollution-spewing industrial plants in River Rouge, just south of Detroit. - Shutterstock


Zug Island is the site of pollution-spewing industrial plants in River Rouge, just south of Detroit.

In 2014, state environmental regulators issued a new permit to the facility, lifting the limit on coke fire gas combustion, a process that emits sulfur dioxide. This decision was based on the company’s assurance that the change “would not result in a significant increase in emissions,” according to the EPA.

However, the plant did significantly increase its emissions, and the company failed to obtain the necessary permits or implement required pollution controls, the EPA alleges.

Activists say DTE has been especially problematic for lower-income, predominantly Black communities, where an abundance of pollution-spewing plants tends to be located.

“In truth this is only one example in DTE’s long and ugly history of profiting at the expense of low-income people of color,” Sierra Club organizer Bryan Smigielski said. “This ruling is an important step in a long road towards environmental justice for southwest Detroit.”

Zug Island is adjacent to Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, 48217, located in Detroit. The community is inundated with a toxic stew of chemicals wafting from steel mills, coal-fired power plants, gas flares, billowing smokestacks, towering piles of coal and petroleum coke, a salt mine, wastewater treatment plant, and one of the nation’s largest oil refineries — all looming over schools, neighborhoods, parks, senior centers, and a recreation center.

A nauseating stench of rotten eggs, burnt plastic, and gasoline permeates the air, and heavy-duty trucks spewing harmful emissions rumble to and from factories all day and night, often carrying toxic chemicals and debris.

“We hope to move quickly and ensure that EES Coke and DTE end their illegal pollution and fix the damage they have caused,” Nick Leonard, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said.

Earthjustice attorney Mary Rock says DTE can’t hide from what it has done.

“At DTE’s direction, EES Coke sought the removal of pollution limits that allowed the facility to burn more coke oven gas and emit sulfur dioxide pollution,” Rock said.

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