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‘Coal can kill’

Patrick Geans-Ali

Patrick Geans-Ali

By Patrick Geans-Ali

It should hurt anyone enough to hear the numbers from a Clean Air Task Force study showing DTE power plants contribute to 572 deaths, 916 heart attacks, 180 premature births and 8,990 asthma attacks each year. That hurt becomes so much more real, however, when you’ve spent the past year or so like I have organizing in communities like River Rouge and Trenton where two of DTE’s coal-fired power plants reside.

You get to know the pain of people like Douglas Myers, who took the folded flag of his deceased father to Lansing with him to a renewable energy hearing in July, even while his mother, who relocated to Arizona for a better climate to relieve her bronchitis, suffered a heart attack just a few days into her visit back to River Rouge. At the hearing, I met Douglas’ now tall teenage son for the first time. Previously, I only knew him from a birth photo where he was so small Douglas could hold him in the palm of his hand.

You get to know the hurt people like Ursula Felton, the widow of a military veteran who moved to River Rouge from her native Hawaii only to have her husband prematurely die of a heart attack in his home town. In April, their otherwise healthy 20-year-old son collapsed and died. In August, her pregnant daughter called, complaining of complications. I later watched the ambulance come to the daughter’s home as I dropped Ursula off on Goodell Street — teeming with other young children playing less than a mile from the plant itself.

You get to know the struggles of Ebony Elmore, whose stepfather worked at the DTE owned facility on Zug Island and whose son, Zaire, is one of too many children who struggle day to day with asthma. In addition, Ebony helps other moms and children by running her own day care service.

Of course, all of Metro Detroit may recall the incident in April when Trenton’s Tanya McNeil appeared on a Channel 7 news broadcast after local residents woke up that spring morning to find a layer of soot covering their homes and cars. DTE quickly declared the soot was non-toxic, but when you see McNeil sitting on her front steps with an asthmatic daughter, you know the numbers never lie.

Of course, this is a microcosm of what it is like to live with the reality of having two of DTE’s oldest, least efficient and dirtiest power plants as neighbors. DTE often claims to be a good neighbor to local residents, but is that how a good neighbor would behave when more socially, environmentally and economically responsible options are being adopted through out the industry?

Across the country, 38 states exceed the state of Michigan in investing in renewable energy as a solution. Even here in Michigan, the state’s second largest energy producer, Consumers Energy, and second largest city, Grand Rapids, have committed to go 100 percent renewable by 2020. Why can’t DTE and the communities of Metro Detroit do the same?

It’s because DTE happens to be one of the most coal dependent public utilities in the country due to having an unregulated side of their business that is one of the nation’s largest coal distributors. So instead of leading Michigan on the more socially, environmentally and economically responsible path, DTE CEO Gerry Anderson has been tabbed to represent the coal industry to negotiate against new EPA protections that would help alleviate these painful environmental realities, curb climate change and lead to greater investments in renewable energy.

Expecting the people of Michigan to continue bearing the painful cost of DTE’s coal addiction needs to end. DTE’s policies are hurting Michigan families on every level. On behalf of our members, our volunteers and the people of Michigan, the Sierra Club expects DTE to stop hurting and start helping.

Patrick Geans-Ali is an organizer for the Detroit Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal Campaign.” Reach him at patrick,


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