Sierra Club, DTE agree to retire 3 coal plants by 2022

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The Sierra Club filed a settlement agreement in federal court Friday committing DTE Energy to retire three of its five coal-fired plants by 2022. The agreement also secured $2 million for community investment in addition to the $5.5 million in mitigation funds announced in the settlement last week between DTE and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The settlements bring to a close a lawsuit first filed against DTE in 2010 over alleged Clean Air Act violations. DTE did not admit responsibility in the settlements. 

Shannon Fisk, lead attorney for the Sierra Club, told Planet Detroit he’s “glad that we have commitments to retire some of the most polluting of DTE’s coal plants – River Rouge, St. Clair, and Trenton Channel – and that we’ve gotten some significant mitigation funding to go towards communities that have long been overburdened like 48217, Ecorse, and River Rouge.” 

According to a press release from the Sierra Club, the three plants will retire by December 31st, 2022. Combined, the three plants emit seven million tons of carbon dioxide, 22,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 8,000 tons of nitrogen oxide annually. DTE has also agreed to install pollution controls or convert to natural gas its Belle River coal plant by December 30, 2030. 

In addition to retiring the three plants, DTE has agreed to pay $1.8 million in penalties and a total of $7.5 million in mitigation and community investment. The projects will include converting diesel-fueled city and school buses in Detroit to electric, improving energy efficiency at the Kemeny Recreation Center in Detroit, and $2 million for various other environmental and sustainability projects. The projects will be decided on by a Community Environmental Action Committee that DTE agreed to create as part of the settlement.

Michelle Martinez, the coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told Planet Detroit that the agreement “doesn’t make up for the fact that they were knowingly in violation of the Clean Air Act for a decade.” With recent research showing that living in areas with high air pollution increases COVID-19 mortality risk, Martinez says it’s “it’s too little too late.”

The EPA and the Sierra Club accused DTE of violating the “New Source Review” requirements of the Clean Air Act when they made changes to their Monroe plant without using the best available technology. Under that requirement, “if a company was going to spend a lot of money rebuilding or extending the life of its coal plant, it was supposed to install controls when it did so,” said Fisk. 

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide were the two pollutants of concern named in the suit. These pollutants are harmful to human health and contribute to acid rain, smog, and haze. 

Local community activist Theresa Landrum told Planet Detroit that “the penalty was not high enough,” and she would have liked to see DTE do more, such as agreeing to go 100% renewable sooner. “With all this research and technology, they can do that,” she said.   

Nick Leonard, Executive Director at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center says the “main benefit” of the settlement was the funding committed to a supplemental environmental plan (SEP), “rather than just a penalty which goes to the U.S. Treasury for whatever purposes.” 

SEPs are required to have a locational relationship to where the violation occurred, and they have to address the issue at the core of the violation — in this case air quality. 

DTE has not announced dates for the retirement of the other two plants: the Monroe plant and the Belle River plant. Fisk said both need to retire sooner than scheduled. 

“We’ve been at the MPSC advocating for a 2025 retirement date [for the Belle River plant], and I don’t believe the Monroe plant will be financially or economically viable to continue operating for another twenty years.” 

“Between the economics and the threat of climate change, that plant needs to retire much sooner than that.”


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