We Can’t Breathe

By Marissa Luna

I went to a hearing that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) held at River Rouge High School last week. Over 100 residents from around Wayne County and other parts of the state turned out to hear about the plan that the MDEQ is writing that will require DTE Energy to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution from their River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants in Wayne County – some of the dirtiest coal plants in the country. Sulfur dioxide pollution from these power plants is responsible for asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospital admissions, and deaths every year.

Over 50 residents stood up to provide comments and tell their stories at the hearing. I was able to talk to some of those folks one-on-one.

I met a woman named Ann, a Detroiter and a former DTE Energy employee. After leaving DTE, she worked for various environmental firms and one of her jobs was to discover why the railroad tracks downriver were being inexplicably eaten away. She discovered that it was only happening on the rail lines where the DTE high-sulfur coal was being transported and eventually found out that the sulfur pollution from burning coal was mixing with the rain, creating sulfuric acid, and destroying the railroad tracks. As Ann said, “I knew then that it was in our air and our water, and I knew it had to stop.”

I spoke to a woman name Gunjan, a third-year medical student at Wayne State. She regularly sees patients that have severe asthma, likely related to breathing in sulfur dioxide pollution on a daily basis, which lands them in the emergency room.

I met Ebony, a lifelong resident of the River Rouge community. Her mother has seven children, four of whom have asthma. Since her childhood, Ebony has been breathing in pollution from DTE’s coal plants. She was at the hearing to take a stand for other kids in her community to make sure they have a better quality of life.

There were folks who spoke at the hearing about how they can’t even run or ride a bike outside because the pollution in the air makes it so hard to breathe. I heard about a five-year-old girl who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a result of breathing sulfur dioxide pollution every day. Many residents who were at the hearing have asthma, have family members with asthma, or know someone in the community who does.

Environmental justice means that everyone should have equal access to clean air, clean water, and a clean environment. It’s no surprise that DTE is one of the worst environmental justice offenders in the nation for targeting communities of color. The utility has spent years installing pollution controls on some coal plants, like the one in Monroe, but has yet to take adequate steps to reduce pollution in the low-income, people of color communities that are home to the River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants.

For decades, residents from the City of Detroit, River Rouge, and nearby downriver neighborhoods have been fighting to stop DTE and other industries from polluting their communities. Sharing their stories at the hearing was another part of that continued fight.

If DTE gets their way, they’ll continue to pump out tons of pollution from their River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants. It’s the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s responsibility to listen to residents who are fighting back and to protect our communities and our health.