Detroit steel coke producer faces federal air pollution lawsuit

DETROIT, MI — The Biden administration is suing a subsidiary of DTE Energy in Detroit, alleging the company has violated the federal Clean Air Act by increasing sulfur dioxide emissions without obtaining permits or installing pollution controls.

The US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against EES Coke Battery LLC on Wednesday, June 1, 2022 in federal district court in Detroit. The government is seeking civil fines and wants a judge to order the company to install emissions controls at its Zug Island facility.

EES Coke uses coal to produce metallurgical coke, which is used in making steel. The company is one of the state’s largest sources of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a toxic gas which can exacerbate particulate matter pollution and which can make breathing difficult for people with asthma.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which, alongside Michigan regulators, is advancing a plan to reduce Detroit area SO2 emissions by limiting air pollutants from facilities on the heavily industrialized Zug Island in River Rouge.

According to the filing, EES Coke significantly increased its SO2 emissions after telling regulators in 2014 it would not do that while asking the state to revise its original 1990 permit to remove limits on underfire coke oven gas combustion, which is used to power operations.

The increase triggered a stringent emissions review, but the coke oven battery continues to emit SO2 at higher levels without required controls, the filing claims.

In 2018, EES Coke emitted more than 3,200 tons of SO2, compared to its permitted baseline of under 2,100 tons per year, the EPA says. In 2021, EES Coke emitted 3,608 tons of SO2.

The EPA is seeking fines up to $109,000 per day of violation.

In a statement, DTE said it’s committed to protecting the environment and health of people in communities around its facilities and is currently reviewing the lawsuit.

“We believe we have complied with all relevant regulations governing the operations conducted at EES Coke, and we remain committed to responsibly operating the plant while it continues to serve crucial industrial and civic functions through the production of coke to fuel the steel industry and the provision of over 170 jobs,” wrote DTE spokeswoman Jill Wilmot.

The EPA says reducing SO2 emissions in the Detroit area would help local residents who suffer from asthma, of which there is high prevalence in Wayne County. Decreases in SO2 will also mean less haze and acid rain, the agency said.

“EPA recognizes the environmental justice concerns of community members in the River Rouge area, including a high asthma rate in the area near EES Coke,” the agency said in a release. “EPA has an agency-wide commitment to advance environmental justice and deliver benefits to underserved and overburdened communities.”

On June 1, the agency opened a 45-day public comment window on its new plan to reduce SO2 emissions around the area, which involves limits on US Steel emissions.

For more than a decade, the downriver Detroit area been out of “attainment” for an ambient air quality standards passed for SO2 in 2010. The EPA says efforts to reduce emissions from sources like the DTE Trenton Channel coal-fired power plant and the Carmeuse Lime facility, as well as the closure of the DTE River Rouge plant, have helped drop emissions.

State efforts to reduce emissions have been difficult and marked by litigation filed by polluters like US Steel, which has fought back in court against efforts to reign-in emissions.

According to the EPA, overall area SO2 emissions have dropped 70 percent since 2013 and, absent “problems near Zug Island,” are currently below 44 parts-per-billion (ppb).

EPA will hold a trio of virtual public hearings on its Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) for reducing SO2 emission from 3 to 9 pm on June 16.

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