Citizens issue notice of intent to sue Dearborn’s AK Steel over repeated Clean Air Act violations

The notice claims the Ohio-based company has failed to correct violations and spews pollution a quarter-mile from residential neighborhoods and a school.

Local environmental groups and residents living near the AK Steel Dearborn Works plant have taken the first step in filing a citizen lawsuit against the factory’s owner over alleged Clean Air Act violations. 

A notice of intent to sue sent to the company on Wednesday alleges Ohio-based Cleveland Cliffs, which owns the factory, repeatedly broke the law by exceeding air pollution emission limits for toxins like lead, manganese, and fine particulate matter over a thousand of times during the past five years. 

The notice claims that there’s no evidence that AK Steel has taken measures to correct the violations, and notes that the plant spews the chemicals about a quarter mile from a school and several residential neighborhoods in Dearborn, Detroit and Melvindale. 

AK Steel previously has been cited for repeated air quality violations, but “at the end of the day the violations have continued and we want to make sure they’re held accountable as soon as possible,” said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC) and one of the lawyers representing the groups

“It’s important to remember the human impact,” he added. “It’s not just the technical issues, but it’s also that community members are being subjected to excessive levels of pollution, so we think it’s an urgent problem.”

The notice requests a meeting with the company within 45 days to discuss the issues. If AK Steel declines to meet with the group or fails to put in motion a plan to correct the violations, then the groups can move forward with a federal lawsuit. 

The letter was also sent to the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Energy (EGLE), which the groups say have failed to require AK Steel to follow federal environmental laws and state issued permits. 

Cleveland Cliffs and EGLE didn’t immediately provide a comment, though Michigan regulators once labeled AK Steel “by far the most egregious” facility in the state.

The groups’ documents, which were compiled using AK Steel’s own regulatory filings, paint a picture of a company with a troubling history of air quality violations. 

AK Steel violated manganese limits at levels that have been over twice what federal law permits, and doesn’t appear to have done any follow up testing, the groups say. Prolonged exposure to manganese, a neurotoxin, can lead to lung disease, loss of sex drive and impairment of the central nervous system that can make people “slow and clumsy,” according to the Center For Disease Control. 

The letter also alleges lead emission violations that tripled Clean Air Act limits in 2019. Lead is neurotoxin that can do damage to kids’ cognitive development and is linked to cancer. 

The notice also alleges hundreds of violations of the plant’s “opacity” limits, which measure the amount of fine particulate matter emissions. The factory violations at times have quadrupled air quality limits. Particulate matter is associated with asthma and other impacts on health and mortality. 

Samra’a Luqman, a Southend Dearborn neighborhood watch leader who lives several thousand feet from AK Steel, tells Planet Detroit that residents pay the price for the violations with their health. The approximately 4,500 residents who live near the plant in the Southend suffer from cancer, lung disease, complications Covid and other health problems that they believe are linked to the plant’s emissions, she said. 

Fine, black soot from the plant coats residents’ homes, and Luqman tests lead levels in her kids’ blood. On days when the air quality is especially bad, many residents stay indoors, and that’s forced family and neighbors to cancel barbecues and celebrations. 

Though Luqman said she was initially “angered and mad” over the health problems, suffering and inconveniences, she now feels something else. 

“After you think about it and you see your neighbors dying off one by one from different cancers, and you see kids having asthma and learning disabilities, then there’s a sense of real, real sorrow,” she said. “It’s very saddening, and to see these kids — it really breaks my heart.” 

The neighborhoods in the cities around the plant are largely low-income black residents and immigrants. Luqman, who would be part of the lawsuit as a resident, said she “would love nothing more to see the world become a better place for these people.”  

“They’re immigrants coming here for a better life than back home where there was war, famine, and then they come here and get poisoned to death,” she added. 

The legal action is only the latest in a series of ongoing legal battles that residents, activists and environmental law groups are fighting against the state’s polluters.

Increasingly, they are turning to citizen lawsuits under the Clean Air Act and other federal environmental statutes, which are strong tools that allow residents to ask a court to enforce environmental laws when regulators like EGLE and the EPA fail to protect residents from polluters.  

The GLELC in 2019 used a citizen suit to force the closure of a toxic trash incinerator near downtown Detroit that had violated carbon monoxide emission limits about 750 times over a four year period. 

Justin Onwenu, an organizer with Sierra Club, said community members and environmental groups have several times met with AK Steel owners Cleveland Cliffs, including an October 2019 meeting at the neighboring Salina Intermediate School at which they and union members demanded that the company hire local workers to install pollution control technology. He characterized the company as “dismissive” of residents’ concerns over pollution.  

Onwenu said a company representative at one point held up a small vial of a substance and told the audience that it represented the amount of the toxin that the factory emitted that was in excess of federal pollution limits, and suggested that it wasn’t harmful. 

“That bothered me because we were literally sitting in a school a few feet from the factory,”  he said. 

AK Steel announced it would shut down three parts of its operation in May.

“They’ve idled portions of the plant, and shut down others,” said Leonard. “The portions of the plant we’re concerned with were not shut down, and I believe are currently up and running.”

When Cleveland Cliffs in 2020 requested a permit from the state to increase the amount of lead and manganese that it emits, residents, the Sierra Club and State Rep. Abdul Hammoud met with the company to express their opposition, Onwenu said. The company once again seemed dismissive of concerns, Onwenu added, but ultimately decided to withdraw the permit request. 

“Having been face-to-face with the company, and placing those experiences side by side with the thousands of violations, I think this legal action is important so they understand that they can’t and shouldn’t get away with it,” he added. 

The potential lawsuit also isn’t the only between Sierra Club and AK Steel. The former and Great Lakes Law Center are engaged in ongoing litigation with the company over a permit that EGLE in 2014 issued that allows the plant to increase emission limits based on regulations that Leonard said no longer exist. 

Luqman said her parents were involved in court battles with the plant’s previous owners over its pollution, and she said the latest round of legal action is part of a “maddening cycle” and “generational fight” that the neighborhood is stuck in with plant ownership and the state. 

“It is a continuous pattern of transgressions, no accountability, and citizens having to use the justice system to get accountability, repeating itself over and over and over,” Luqman said. 

She said she not only blames the companies that have owned the plant and regulators at EGLE, but also politicians like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel.  

“They have the power to make some changes, but they’re choosing not to,” Luqman said.

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