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DTE's Claims of Being a Good Neighbor Contradicted by Clean Air Act Violations

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Alamy
Alamy

It's fitting in our current times that most people believe the phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility" originated in the world of comics. Somehow we forget a carpenter's son said, "To whom much is given, much is expected" about 2,000 years ago; and Voltaire originally coined the phrase hailing Europe's Age of Enlightenment.

Whether heard while nodding through a Sunday sermon, a boring philosophy lecture en route to an MBA or the world of comics, the maxim is no laughing matter when the failure to live up to it belongs to a corporate powerhouse like DTE Energy. The state's largest energy provider is also the eighth largest in the country with over two million household and business customers. DTE has reaped average gross incomes of approximately $3.5 billion over the last five years.

That's a lot of power and responsibility to be sure.

At www.dteenergy.com, you'll even find a link to "Corporate Responsibility" with green-washed photos and subheadings presenting DTE's good neighborly commitments to people, economy and environment. What you won't find however are DTE's own un-neighborly emissions reports to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. These reports detail 1,499 combined violations of the federal Clean Air Act at DTE's River Rouge, Trenton Channel, Belle River and St. Clair coal-fired power plants over a five-year period.

[I'll venture to say that] these self-reported violations are a conservative number. Either way, they've prompted the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign to file legal proceedings against DTE on behalf of its membership in Michigan. Each of these almost 1,500 violations was an instance in which a coal plant emitted excessive pollutants from its smokestacks into the air, contributing to the well documented elevated health risks of people in surrounding communities.

Smokestack plumes from DTE contain nitrogen dioxide, which a 2010 published study referenced in University of Michigan Professor Paul Mohai's 2011 Health Affairs study describes as "a common air pollutant generated by the burning of fossil fuels." It can cause "decreases of 6.71, 7.37 and 8.61 points" in the neurological functioning of nearby residents -- often children who attend schools located near heavy industrial facilities. Additionally, the Clean Air Task Force has found that the River Rouge, St. Clair/Belle River, River Rouge, and Trenton Channel coal-fired power plants collectively contribute to 267 deaths, 434 heart attacks, and 4,180 asthma attacks each year.

The Clean Air Act aims to protect the health of nearby communities. To come into compliance, DTE simply needs to make the required equipment upgrades, or follow the lead of the nation's other utilities by reducing its reliance on coal and increasing its investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. To date, DTE has chosen not to do so, and the consequences of the disparity between DTE's public relations materials and public accountability should no longer be ignored.

It's time for DTE to make the investments necessary to protect the public health and adopt a sustainable clean energy plan. DTE should transition away from the use of outdated coal-using facilities toward greater use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, and it's not like they don't have the resources.

DTE not only is guaranteed an 11 percent profit margin. They have also gotten a 13.8 percent increase in utility rates from customers over the last five years. Additionally, they've received $43 million for production tax credits in 2012 alone -- $35 million of which was for chemically treated coal.

As if that wasn't enough, DTE is also currently pushing to get access to billions more in subsidized costs toward building a third Fermi nuclear power plant in Monroe. Throw in the millions of dollars they stand to gain from a new round of tax breaks on new equipment purchases gifted to industry by Governor Rick Snyder and the state legislature during December's lame duck session, and anyone can see that the current financial crisis experienced by cities like Detroit and River Rouge is not so much a problem of governments managing their finances. It is a crisis of governments managing corporations.

The tri-cities of Detroit, Ecorse and River Rouge bear the impact of cumulative environmental pollution from hosting heavy industrial polluters like DTE, Marathon Petroleum's Tar Sands Oil Refinery, steel mills, the Detroit Incinerator and Detroit's Waste Water Treatment Plant. In many instances, the benefits of these facilities are shared throughout the Detroit Metro area and the state. However, the high costs for hosting them are not shared equally.

All three communities face the loss of local governance through state-appointed Emergency Financial Managers. Continued corporate tax breaks contribute heavily to the poor financial condition of these communities just as industrial pollution contributes to their poor environmental and health conditions.

Are these the actions of good neighbors and partners? No. Good neighbors keep their communities clean, respect their neighbor's health, pay their due taxes and obey the law.
Sure. Corporations are provided the opportunity to make a profit, but they come across like common thugs when they think their enterprises give them carte blanche to reap huge profits, fail to pay their fair share of taxes, break the law, and harm the health of others.