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State plan to curb Wayne County sulfur dioxide blasted at public hearing

Sep 24, 2015

DTE Energy's Trenton Channel power plant is one of the five major sources of sulfur dioxide in the area.
Credit Wikipedia

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has a plan to curb sulfur dioxide pollution in Wayne County, and it has plenty of critics.

In 2013, an area of Wayne County that includes part of Detroit and some downriver communities failed to meet new federal ambient air quality standards for sulfur dioxide.

The DEQ has come up with a strategy to bring the area into compliance. But the agency got a lot of negative feedback on the plan at public hearing in River Rouge Wednesday.

That plan “fails in a number of regards,” says Brad van Guilder, a leader with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The DEQ proposal targets the five main sulfur dioxide-emitting industrial facilities within the non-attainment area.

It “worked with” four of those plants on “new permits and pollution control equipment that helps them lower and/or better disperse their emissions,” according to a DEQ information sheet.

It has proposed a separate rule that would require reduced sulfur dioxide emissions, but it only applies to one facility, a US Steel plant.

Van Guilder calls that a “piecemeal approach that games the system.” He thinks it’s particularly problematic that the largest sulfur dioxide emitters in the area — two DTE Energy coal-fired power plants — are still permitted to have emissions levels higher than their actual emissions in 2010.

“The fact that they’ve lowered it, but to a level that’s still higher than their actual emissions, means there’s no real benefit to this,” he says.

Another problem is that the state plan still produces two pollution “hotspots” in computer models.

But those models require the DEQ to simulate “worst case scenarios” where polluters are constantly producing maximum emissions. DEQ officials say such an “extreme” scenario is unlikely.

“We’re not getting those worst-case levels down to the standard,” says DEQ air quality division head Barb Rosenbaum. “But we believe that’s a highly conservative scenario and assume that won’t really happen.”

Rosenbaum says newer DEQ air quality measurements show the area is already meeting the new federal standards.

The US Environmental Protection Agency must approve Michigan’s plan. If it doesn’t, the EPA can impose its own standards.

But van Guilder and others are calling for the EPA to step in now. They say it’s worrying that the DEQ itself had proposed much stricter emissions rules in 2014, a plan they say was scrapped and re-written after review from Gov. Snyder’s Office of Regulatory Reinvention.

Many residents also say more aggressive standards are needed because the heavily-industrial area already bears a high pollution burden.

Eddie Hejka, a teacher at River Rouge's Sabbath Middle School, worries about the “cumulative impact” of that pollution, especially on kids.

“We need some help,” Hejka says. “You know, everything’s about education nowadays…[but] education isn’t just in the classroom. It’s the entire environment.”