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State works to help Southwest Detroiters breathe easily

Zug Island as seen from Delray

Getting a breath of fresh air in polluted areas of Southwest Detroit could become a more real possibility.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) recently announced a move to get legislative approval in setting new sulfur dioxide limits for U.S. Steel’s Zug Island Boiler Houses. The new rule would also reduce sulfur dioxide at the Hot Strip Mill Reheat Furnaces in Ecorse.


As little as five minutes of exposure to sulfur dioxide has been linked to bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Studies also link the gas to increased emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, especially among children and seniors.

“We’re continuing to move forward to produce a plan to permanently solve the problem,” says Barb Rosenbaum, MDEQ spokesperson.

A nationwide test was performed in 2010, finding that parts of Wayne County exceeded the federal standard of no more than 75 parts sulfur dioxide per billion in the air during an average of one hour. The MDEQ began developing a plan, investigating “who contributes a lot, who contributes a little” to the presence of the pollutant, says Rosenbaum. The agency identified U.S. Steel, DTE Energy’s River Rouge and Trenton Channel plants, Carmeuse Lime and Stone, and EES Coke on Zug Island as among the most significant sources of emission.

All the companies except U.S. Steel worked to incorporate voluntary measures to reduce emissions, according to the MDEQ. For example, DTE Energy’s Trenton Channel plant shut down its coal-fueled boilers. Coal-burning is a primary sulfur dioxide source.

“The level of sulfur dioxide we breathe isn’t determined by just what’s coming out of the stacks,” adds Rosenbaum, “but also how close you live to the location.”

Southwest Detroit residents have suffered a disproportionate amount of exposure to pollution, compared with other areas of the city, because of their homes lie in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. The air there is contaminated with traffic-related emissions, hovering air environmental experts say.

MDEQ’s work to attack the sulfur dioxide problem contributes to the quality of life in neighborhoods, says Kathy Stott, executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.

“It’s a big deal,” says Stott.


Under the Clean Air Act, administrative rule lets the MDEQ enforce compliance with sulfur dioxide and other pollution limit requirements. While emission levels have been lowered, public comment provided from residents last year demanded additional reduction.

Areas of the MDEQ’s focus extend beyond Southwest Detroit into Melvindale, Ecorse, and Gibraltar, among several communities. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard requires sulfur dioxide limits be met by 2018. So far, levels in Southwest Detroit have fallen by 33 percent since 2010. Testing is required every five years.

Evidence of success is clear in, at least, one neighborhood. The good news for residents immediately surrounding Southwestern High School, along with its students and staff, is a monitoring site there reflects that the air meets the 75-parts-per-billion limit for sulfur dioxide, according to MDEQ tests.

“It does mean that people are breathing clean air,” says Rosenbaum.

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