Greener and cleaner 

A coalition of environmentalist organizations is hailing a recent court ruling that will keep Detroit Edison from reopening its controversial Conners Creek power plant as a coal-fired facility.

The 40-year-old plant, located on Detroit’s east side in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, will be converted to burn natural gas as a result of a Clean Air Act enforcement action brought by a coalition of citizen groups and federal, state and county enforcement agencies.

Edison last year attempted to circumvent permit requirements by claiming new, stricter standards did not apply to the existing facility, even though it had been mothballed for nearly a decade.

Citizens groups argued that the coal-powered plant should be treated as a "new source" and that Detroit Edison was legally required to modernize the plant’s 1970s-era pollution controls.

Although first giving a green light to Edison, Wayne County and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality eventually sided with environmentalists and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, which investigated the situation at the behest of environmental organizations.

That view was validated March 12, when U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens ruled that Detroit Edison violated the Clean Air Act by renovating and restarting the Conners Creek plant without first obtaining the requisite permits.

According to the Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest, which represented the coalition of environmental organizations, Feikens gave Edison until March to apply for the necessary permits to convert the plant from coal to natural gas.

"This is a great victory," said environmental activist Pegg Roberts, a resident of the Creekside community adjacent to the plant. "Edison showed a total lack of regard for the people who live around those smokestacks."

To counter company denials that the plant was not operating, Roberts and other area residents set up a 24-hour watch, with people keeping a log and taking pictures whenever smoke billowed from the facility.

"Never underestimate the power of concerned citizens," said Roberts.

The issue became international in scope when the Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwest Ontario weighed in with its opposition. Much of the plant’s pollution problems were destined to blow directly across the Detroit River and into Windsor.

Although still insisting that Edison committed no violations by trying to restart Conners Creek as a coal-fired plant, a spokesman for the utility said the order to convert to gas will provide needed power while satisfying environmental concerns.

"We listened to the regulatory agencies and the community, and came up with a compromise that all will agree is beneficial," said Mike Rodenberg, supervisor of regulatory and compliance strategies for Detroit Edison.

But it was a compromise arrived at after the hammer of regulatory enforcement had dropped.

Joining the fight against Edison were the Michigan Environmental Council, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the American Lung Association of Michigan.

Calling Feiken’s ruling a "tremendous accomplishment," the Lung Association’s Elliot Levinsohn said the effort to reduce the smog-producing effects of coal-fired electricity sends a clear message to utility companies.

"We hope this will set a precedent, keep other plants from across the country from restarting old coal-fired power plants without implementing the strictest controls or converting to gas plants," said Levinsohn. "This sends the message that people want greener electricity and cleaner air."

More by Curt Guyette

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