MONROE, Mich. — A Michigan utility spent $65 million last year replacing key parts at the state's largest coal-fired power plant. When regulators found out, they hauled the company into court for what it didn't do: Spend millions more at the same time to greatly eliminate air pollution.
The fight with DTE Energy isn't an isolated one. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department are aggressively suing electric utilities across the Midwest to get them to install the latest technology to capture smog-causing emissions.
The legal action is the latest shot in a decades-long conflict over bringing the utilities in line with the Clean Air Act. When Congress passed tougher standards in 1977, it allowed the industry to wait until older plants underwent a major overhaul before acquiring new anti-pollution equipment. The idea was that upgrades would be made gradually.
But more than three decades later, about half of U.S. coal-fired units — roughly 600 — lack advanced controls, EPA says. And years have been consumed in clashes among utilities, regulators and environmental groups over exactly what constitutes an overhaul and what is merely maintenance.
For people in Michigan and three other Midwestern states, court battles over pollution equipment could make a difference in the purity of air they breathe and the cost of electricity they use. The DTE case is set for trial this fall.
"What you're seeing is EPA's renewed vigor in enforcement of the Clean Air Act," said Cynthia Giles, an EPA assistant administrator. "The controls we're seeking to make companies install cost money. There are reasons for the industry to be pushing back. It's our job to insist on compliance."
In January, the EPA also sued utilities in Pennsylvania and Missouri. A case involving six coal-burning plants in Illinois is also pending. Meanwhile, there have been at least seven settlements since 2009 in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Kansas, with remedies ranging from cleaner fuel to millions of dollars in fines and pollution controls
Former EPA lawyer Eric Schaeffer, director of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project, said legal action has been "pretty consistent" since the final years of the Bush administration, partly reflecting the government's impatience with the upgrade process. "The big settlements take many years to land," he said.
The EPA alleges that utilities are putting their customers in "grave" danger by resisting change.
"These pollutants cause harm to human health and the environment once emitted into the air, including premature death, heart attacks, and respiratory problems," the EPA said in federal court in Detroit.
DTE, which provides electricity and natural gas to more than 3 million Michigan homes and businesses, says it has significantly reduced pollution at the Monroe plant and will complete more air-quality improvements by 2014.
"The deepest recession Michigan has seen since the Great Depression is not the time for EPA to increase ratepayer costs," said DTE attorney F. William Brownell, noting that any fix would not be quick and would cost at least $156 million, plus millions more in annual operating expenses.
"It's not feasible to expedite the installation of these controls," Brownell said in a court filing in November.
DTE's Monroe plant, 40 miles south of Detroit on Lake Erie, is the workhorse of the company's coal-fired fleet. Unit 2, one of four here and the target of the lawsuit, alone is capable of providing power for more than 100,000 homes and businesses.
Coal is an essential ingredient. It is burned to heat water, which becomes steam. The steam then turns turbines to make electricity.
But coal, of course, is dirty. Monroe Unit 2 released 27,230 tons of sulfur dioxide and 8,205 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2009 — tops in Michigan, according to the EPA, and an undisputed source of air pollution.
A year ago, DTE turned off Unit 2 for three months to replace boiler parts and improve the plant's efficiency. The EPA said it knew nothing about the project until it read a story in The Monroe Evening News, headlined: "Extreme Makeover: Power Plant Edition," which described the work and its benefit to the local economy.
The utility has insisted it was nothing more than "routine maintenance" that is standard in the industry. The EPA, however, said it was a modification that easily required state-of-the-art technology to eliminate virtually all emissions at a plant open since the 1970s.
Capturing those emissions would be the equivalent of taking 371,000 heavy-duty trucks and 1 million passenger cars off the road, said Lyle Chinkin, an air-quality expert and president of Sonoma Technology in Petaluma, Calif.
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To bolster its case, the government turned to Joel Schwartz, an expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, who predicts there will be 90 to 100 premature deaths a year among people exposed to pollution from the Monroe plant. DTE dismisses those as "alarmist assertions."
While the case moves through court, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman has told the utility it can keep Unit 2 operating at or below the level that existed before last year's project.
DTE spokesman John Austerberry said what gets lost is the company's decade-long accomplishment of making other parts of the Monroe power plant cleaner. "It's not like changing a muffler on a car," he said. "These are huge construction projects. It takes years to complete."