Press Release: Environmental Justice Tour Highlights Path to Sustainable Future for Steel & Cars

Tour Explores Impact and Opportunities of Detroit & Dearborn Manufacturing

Ariana Criste, Senior Communications Strategist


Environmental Justice Tour Highlights Path to Sustainable Future for Steel & Cars

Tour Explores Impact and Opportunities of Detroit & Dearborn Manufacturing

Detroit, MI, September 15— Earlier this week, Michigan residents and advocates came together to highlight the symbiotic relationship between Detroit and Dearborn's auto and steel industries and explore pathways to a cleaner, more sustainable future for both. The tour was organized by Industrious Labs, a climate advocacy organization focused on heavy industry.

Today, almost 70% of climate pollution from the American steel industry comes from just eight steel plants, including Cleveland-Cliffs Dearborn works, all in the Great Lakes region. These facilities are owned by just two companies: U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs, which is currently bidding to buy US Steel. Automakers are a key buyer of the steel made at these facilities, accounting for approximately a third of sales.

"Throughout the tour, we saw how deeply interwoven the steel and automotive industries are and how they encroach on Detroit and Dearborn communities," stated Hilary Lewis, Steel Director at Industrious Labs. "The tour highlighted the cumulative impacts of industrial supply chains and the history of environmental racism in citing these facilities, but it also laid out a roadmap for more equitable and sustainable steel and auto manufacturing that protects public health and good union jobs. There is a big opportunity for Michigan to be a leader in clean manufacturing, and now is the time to start."

Steel’s Pollution Problem

The steel industry currently accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Outdated blast furnace technology, reliant on coal, continues to be the leading method for producing new (also called ‘primary’) steel, posing threats to public health and the environment. Coke ovens, where metallurgical coal is heated to produce coke for blast furnaces, are responsible for more than 40% of carcinogens released during blast furnace steelmaking.

During the tour, residents shared firsthand experiences of the environmental impact caused by EES Coke ovens on Zug Island in Detroit. This facility, which supplies coke to steelmakers, including Cleveland-Cliffs, ranks second in Michigan for sulfur dioxide and particulate matter pollution among industrial facilities (excluding power plants), according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data.

Theresa Landrum, a lifelong SW Detroit resident, retired autoworker, and activist, said, “When we talk about pollution, we need to talk about the pollution inside and outside of these facilities that impacts workers and residents. My father worked on Zug Island and brought chemicals and dust from work on his uniform into our family home. My mother and father both passed from cancer, and my sister and I are both cancer survivors. You can connect the cancer rates in our community to the pollution from these industries.”

Eight integrated steel mills in the US still rely on coke-burning blast furnaces, including the Cleveland-Cliffs Dearborn Works facility. These blast furnaces emit toxic pollution, including heavy metals and particulate matter, disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income communities. According to EPA data, 47% of the community within three miles of the Dearborn Works facility is BIPOC and 60% is low-income.

This pollution has severe health consequences, contributing to conditions like COPD, asthma, respiratory infections, cardiac diseases, cancer, and premature death. A 2016 study found that cumulative air pollution exposure in Detroit is responsible for 721 premature deaths and 1,500 hospitalizations annually.

Samra’a Luqman, a resident and activist from Dearborn, spoke about the industry’s impact on her family and neighbors, noting the proximity of Dearborn Works, the Dearborn Industrial Generator power plant, and Ford manufacturing to schools, homes, parks and other community centers, “Our kids play on a playground 150 feet away from a methane power plant and just across the street from a steel plant.”

“We live in a cancer cluster. My family and neighbors are impacted and dying. Within six months of birth, my son developed a tumor and had it removed. My mom is in remission. When COVID came to our area, it cleaned out our grandmothers, our grandfathers, and our parents. We were severely impacted because the steel industry refuses to clean up its mess,” said Luqman.

The EPA is in the process of updating regulations aimed at reducing hazardous air pollutants from both Coke Ovens and Iron and Steel plants. Advocates and impacted communities are urging EPA to strengthen these regulations, particularly since a recent Sierra Club report identified these industries as having the most significant impact on human health. The comment period for the Iron and Steel rule has been extended until September 29th and the Coke Oven rule comment period ends October 2nd.

Relining is a red line for the climate and human health

Blast furnaces require a major maintenance project where the bricks lining the furnace are replaced, known as a reline, approximately every 18 years to continue to operate efficiently. In 2007, the blast furnace at the Dearborn Works facility was torn down and rebuilt, indicating that the furnace would soon need to be relined. According to estimates from Industrious Labs, relining Dearborn Works would cost approximately $275 million and extend the plant’s life by almost two decades. Cliffs has not announced plans to reline its Dearborn Works blast furnace, but advocates are concerned that this announcement will soon come.

“Relining extends a coal-burning steel plant's life by an estimated 18 years, pushing the sector further away from the trajectory required to decarbonize,” warned Hilary Lewis, Steel Director at Industrious Labs. “Dirty steelmaking is a dead end that will lock us into fossil fuel dependence and worsen pollution in already overburdened communities. Instead, steelmakers must use this opportunity to invest in clean alternatives.”

Clean EVs need clean materials

The tour also stopped at the Ford Rouge Complex, a joint Ford automotive and Cleveland-Cliffs steelmaking site, showing the intertwined nature of these industries. As the automotive industry shifts towards electric vehicles (EVs), pollution concerns are shifting from the tailpipe to the supply chain. A critical starting point is steel, which is approximately 65% of the current average vehicle weight and 20% of the embodied emissions of an EV, according to Mercedes-Benz.

Dearborn resident Samra’a Luqman posed a question to automakers like Ford, “Do you value human lives enough not only to commit to electric vehicles but also to ensure that these electric vehicles are produced through a green steelmaking process?”

In 2022, the automotive sector played a substantial role in primary steel purchases from leading U.S. manufacturers, constituting approximately a third of Cleveland Cliffs' and U.S. Steel's domestic sales. Ford and GM have signed the First Movers pledge to purchase 10% near-zero emission primary steel by 2030. However, no US-based automaker has signed a green steel contract.

Erika Thi Patterson, Auto Supply Chain Campaign Director at Public Citizen's Climate Program, emphasized the importance of automakers as key customers to the steel industry, “If automakers committed to procuring decarbonized steel, that would send a powerful signal to steel producers to invest in the transition. Automakers need to leverage the industry’s purchasing power to cut emissions in local communities, eliminate human rights abuses throughout their supply chains, and propel a just transition for steelworkers in the US - into cleaner, union jobs making green steel.”

Opportunities for transformation

The tour not only shed light on opportunities for transformation but also underscored the risks of falling behind in the race to green steel. The potential for fossil-free steel production is a reality today, thanks to a proven method of ironmaking known as direct reduced iron (DRI), which can be powered by green hydrogen generated from renewable energy. While facilities adopting this technology are already under construction worldwide, there are currently no announced plans to build fossil-free steel plants in the US.

Surrendering the green steel market to other countries carries tangible consequences for American workers and communities. The tour started at U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Steel, which permanently idled its blast furnace and basic oxygen furnaces in 2020. This move resulted in an estimated 1,000 workers losing their jobs. On the other hand, recent reports, such as one by the Ohio River Valley Institute, have shown that a transition to green steelmaking could grow the total number of jobs supported by the steel industry.

“By leveraging the $6.3 billion for industrial decarbonization in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, US steelmakers can become leaders in green steel, creating jobs and reducing harmful pollution while meeting the growing demand from the auto industry,” said Hilary Lewis, Steel Director at Industrious Labs.