Follow Us On


For a Clean and Safe Detroit: Close the Country's Largest Incinerator

March, April 2002
Mary Beth Doyle and Brad Van Guilder

When Kwame Kilpatrick was campaigning in last fall’s mayoral race, he called for new ideas to improve Detroit’s public services and address severe financial problems. A coalition of neighborhood and environmental organizations are offering the new Mayor a plan to do both, and to clean the City’s air at the same time. The Ecology Center, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, and 10 other groups are calling for the City to close its trash incinerator and start a comprehensive recycling program. This plan would make better use of resources, reduce air pollution, and save the city money.
Detroit began building its incinerator in 1986, despite protests from environmental justice and public health activists, who were dismayed to see the city invest so heavily in a polluting technology. “We knew then that this was a bad idea for the environment, and we’ve since learned that it’s a bad idea financially as well,” said Ed McArdle, Detroit-area resident, Ecology Center Vice-President, and Sierra Club activist.
At the time, proponents considered incineration to be a clean and affordable alternative to landfills, but the project quickly turned into another expensive embarrassment for Detroit. Today, the Detroit incinerator is the largest of any municipality in the U.S. It burns more than 700,000 tons of waste per year — about 3,000 tons per day — of which 60% comes from Detroit. The City will spend about $77 million this year to burn and landfill its trash, nearly ten times the amount paid per ton by its suburban neighbors.
A Question of Health and Justice
The incinerator sits in the heart of the city where I-75 and I-94 intersect, in a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood. The surround-ing community is already exposed to pollutants from numerous sources in the area, including Michigan’s only commercial medical waste incinerator, the GM Poletown plant, and two major highways.
It is in this overburdened community that Detroit decided to build the incinerator, which is legally allowed to release more than 25 tons of hazardous air pollutants and more than 1,800 tons of other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, mercury, and lead, every year.
A recent Michigan Senate report cited municipal waste incinerators as the second largest source of mercury contamination in Michigan and a threat to the Great Lakes. Municipal waste incinerators are also a major source of dioxin, a persistent chemical that is toxic even in very small amounts. Dioxin is a hormone disrupter that can cause cancer as well as reproductive and developmental effects.
The community already has its share of health concerns. The neighborhoods surrounding the facility have one of the highest rates of elevated blood lead levels in the city. Almost 40% of Detroit children with elevated blood lead levels live within 10 zip code areas in the center of the city, including the area containing the incinerator.
Many pollutants from incinerators can affect lung function and trigger asthma attacks. Detroit has one of the highest asthma rates in the country — three times the national average — and ranks third in asthma-related deaths. It leads the nation for asthma death rate among African Americans.
Regardless of whether these health problems are caused by emissions from facilities like the Detroit incinerator, the prevalence of these illnesses within the community makes this population more susceptible to harm from the pollutants emitted by the incinerator.
Who Profits?
The Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA) is the public body responsible for the bond repayment and operation of the facility, and Covanta Energy Corporation (formerly Ogden) oversees day-to-day operations. However, the incinerator is owned by Philip Morris Capital Corporation, a subsidiary of the tobacco conglomerate. Philip Morris bought the facility in 1991 and leases it back to the city.
“It’s been well-documented that cigarette companies target minority communities like Detroit with their billboards,” said Donele Wilkins, Executive Director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. “It’s ironic Philip Morris is targeting our community with the country’s largest municipal waste incinerator as well.”
Continued operation of the incinerator is also an economic disaster for the citizens of Detroit. In the current fiscal year, Detroit will spend $77 million to burn and landfill approximately 600,000 tons of trash.
This $130-per-ton cost is an Enron-sized scandal, given the City’s fiscal problems and the disposal costs paid by its suburban neighbors. The Southern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority (SOCCRA) recently received a bid of less than $14 per ton to dispose of its trash at Republic Industries’ Carleton Farms Landfill in Sumpter Township. The City of Ann Arbor pays even less for its combination of landfill disposal, recycling, and composting.


You can help close the Detroit Incinerator!
Information on the incinerator has been hampered by a lack of access to public documents both for operation of the incinerator and its finances. Review of the operating permit is only a starting point for publicity about the failures of the incinerator. This effort will evolve rapidly as we collect documents, so make sure to check the Ecology Center’s web site ( for updates, actions, detailed information, and downloads of documents and flyers.


Were Detroit to shut down its incinerator in favor of landfill disposal, the City would probably receive bids even lower than SOCCRA’s because of its large volume of trash. Even if Detroit couldn’t beat SOCCRA’s price, and even if it was forced to pay off the remaining $400 million on the incinerator bonds, the City could possibly save $20 million per year. If the City added a comprehensive recycling program to the effort, the savings could reach as high as $25 million per year.
Cut Your Losses, Mr. Mayor
In January, community leaders and environmentalists from around the state spoke out against the facility at a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) public hearing about the facility’s Renewable Operating Permit. Citing incomplete €les, inadequate public notice, and environmental justice concerns, person after person spoke up to demand that the Department deny the permit.
But even if MDEQ does grant the permit (there is no case where a Renewable Operating Permit has been denied), environmentalists and Detroit community leaders plan to continue their efforts to shut down the incinerator. “Incineration is not good for public health and it is not good for the city’s bottom line,” said Ed McArdle. “It is time to make Detroit an incinerator-free zone.”
The incinerator continues to pollute low-income neighborhoods and drain money out of city coffers. Now it’s time for Mayor Kilpatrick to cut the City’s losses on the plant – right here, right now.