Fighting for the Right to Breathe in Detroit and Beyond

05/06/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated May 06, 2016

The following guest post is an open letter to Detroit-based utility company DTE Energy, which is having its annual shareholder meeting this week. The letter was authored by Alisha Winters, a mother and community leader in River Rouge, Michigan, home to one of the DTE coal plants that contribute 85 percent of the sulfur dioxide pollution in Wayne County. I met Alisha Winters when I visited her community earlier this year, and I'm excited to share her letter with you. Her letter couldn't be more timely -- the American Lung Association just gave Wayne County a grade of "F" in its newly released 2015 "State of the Air" report.

While many families are looking forward to spending time outdoors this spring and summer, there are millions of Americans dreading the dangerous, and sometimes deadly, smog pollution that can trigger asthma attacks.

This week the Sierra Club launched its free smog-pollution text-alert system for 2015, which notifies mobile-phone users through a text message when local air is unsafe to breathe. Available in both English and Spanish, the system was launched in recognition of World Asthma Day and Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month in an effort to help American families avoid asthma attacks triggered by smog pollution and bad-air days -- like those in Detroit. Our hope is that this text-alert system helps parents better protect their kids by alerting them when the air outside is unsafe to breathe. You can sign up right now; just text AIRALERTS to 69866.

Below is the open letter to DTE shareholders from Alisha Winters:

We met last year in Pennsylvania at your annual shareholders meeting. You learned my name and shook my hand. I told you about where I live, downriver of Detroit, under the plume of the River Rouge plant, one of DTE's five coal-burning plants. You heard our stories. We took a picture with you. A few months later in July 2014, I wrote your CEO, Gerry Anderson, a letter and invited him to meet with me and my neighbors in River Rouge, so that we might work on plans for our future together. I received a quick reply from his office, which did not acknowledge my invitation. Instead, a representative said DTE was doing what it could to "ensure compliance."

This year, I cannot make it to your annual shareholder meeting May 7, as it is being held in Washington, D.C., a great distance away from my home and family in DTE's service territory. But I want to call to your attention again the way your company affects my daily life. Because over the past year, DTE's harmful practices have not changed.

I understand business is about profits and losses. But the way I see it, while DTE profits, my community continues to lose, for decades, for generations.

As you consider the costs of doing business, consider these human costs -- the price we pay.

-- DTE's coal plants are responsible for more than $2.6 billion in health costs to community members across Michigan every year, according to data collected by the Clean Air Task Force.

-- DTE's coal plants are responsible for at least 85 percent of all sulfur dioxide emissions in Wayne County. A new report by the American Lung Association shows that Wayne County, which earned a grade of 'F' for clean air, leads the state in pediatric asthma cases, adult asthma cases and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) cases.

-- Every year, the air and water pollution from DTE's coal fleet contributes to an estimated 339 deaths, 555 heart attacks, 5,300 asthma attacks, 248 hospital admissions, 201 chronic bronchitis cases and 166 asthma ER visits.

-- The NAACP has labeled DTE Energy as one of the worst environmental justice offenders for its impact on low-income communities. In 2013, 92 Michigan schools had sulfur dioxide levels that exceed federal limits. Sulfur dioxide is a major contributor to asthma. A 2011 study funded by the Kresge Foundation linked air pollution around schools to poorer student health and academic performance.The City of Detroit and nearby downriver communities comprise "the Epicenter of Asthma Burden," according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

-- One of the two most recent studies of asthma hospitalization in Wayne County showed that Detroit's zip codes had three to six times higher admission than the state as a whole. Another study of 29 zip codes showed that asthma hospitalization generally worsened in the city of Detroit from 2000 to 2010, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

-- Based on Detroit Public Schools School Nurse Monthly Reports, 18 percent of students have physician-diagnosed asthma, and an estimated 7-10 percent of students have undiagnosed asthma. During the 2003-2004 school year, nurses handled three to five life-threatening asthma episodes per month.

-- The Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness lists asthma as the leading chronic condition causing school absenteeism in Detroit, as well as the leading cause of preventable hospitalizations for children under 18.

-- The prevalence of asthma among Detroit adults is 50 percent higher than the rest of Michigan. Rates of asthma hospitalization in Detroit are three times higher compared to the rest of the state.

-- According to a 2014 Public Policy Poll, more than three-in-five DTE customers and Michigan voters (62 percent of both samples) say they support replacing the state's coal-burning power plants with renewable energy sources. The majority of voters sampled say they are concerned about "asthma attacks and other potential health problems from soot, smog and other pollution from coal-burning power plants" (60 percent of Michigan voters statewide and 62 percent of those who are DTE customers).

We ask you to create a transition plan for moving away from coal, specifically at the River Rouge plant in our neighborhood. Our families deserve clean air, and we have been without it for far too long.


Alisha Winters