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Detroit Waste Incinerator: Dirty and Expensive

Detroit on Cusp of Recycling IF…
While other cities and counties struggle to reduce landfill waste through recycling programs, Detroit still burns its garbage — and the garbage of its neighbors — within blocks of residential neighborhoods.

Coalition Calls for Mayor Bing to do the Right Thing
During the mayoral campaign, Mayor Dave Bing stated that he supports an end to incineration of Detroit’s trash, “The City cannot sell what it burns,” in his support for the New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste.

Too Close or Not Too Close?
The City of Detroit currently faces a historic deadline of July 1, 2008 to close the largest trash incinerator in the world.

Strategic Alternatives Report
The city of Detroit could decide by the end of 2007 whether to close the incinerator that burns more than 700,000 tons of garbage a year.

Detroit’s Future Without a Trash Incinerator
On January 12, 2007 the Detroit City Council Environmental and Recycling Task Force, chaired by councilwoman Joann Watson, approved a report creating a framework for the future of Detroit’s solid waste management.

Billion-Dollar Boondoggle
Wasteful and impractical only begin to describe how the City of Detroit, faced with a $300 million deficit for the current fiscal year, will have misspent about one billion dollars over the course of 20 years on a single project—the Detroit Incinerator.

More about the Detroit incinerator

Detroit on Cusp of Recycling IF…

Mayor Dave Bing
“The City cannot sell what now it burns,” said Mayor Bing during his election campaign.

While other cities and counties struggle to reduce landfill waste through recycling programs, Detroit still burns its garbage — and the garbage of its neighbors — within blocks of residential neighborhoods. Detroit’s cultural district (including Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Detroit Medical Center) is less than half a mile away. But a construction debt burden and a sale agreement that have tied the City to its incinerator for 20 years came to an end this summer, and the City now has an opportunity to stop using the incinerator and adopt a program of waste reduction and landfilling of remainders.

“The incinerator has the unique problem of being grossly oversized,” said Brad van Guilder, Southeast Michigan Organizer for the Ecology Center, in a recent WDET radio interview. As the largest incinerator in the world, it has to burn for other towns and for private haulers to keep it going near its design capacity. During the last several years, private haulers were charged as little as $13 per ton, while Detroit residents have been charged $150 per ton or more. Since the City needs the trash to keep it burning, its continued use is a disincentive to recycling. On July 1, 2009, Detroit implemented a pilot curbside recycling program for about 10 percent of households, but it could easily be abandoned if the City continues to use the incinerator, leaving Detroit as the only major city in the U.S. with no curbside recycling. “If we don't renew the contract with the incinerator operator and instead use a landfill, we’d have the flexibility to start and rapidly expand recycling. We’d save on tonnage, and residents could be paid for recycling.”

“It burns nearly 800,000 tons of trash per year, emitting hazardous air pollutants including mercury, lead, and dioxins,” wrote Noah Hall, environmental law professor at Wayne State University Law School and Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit, in a recent Detroit Free Press op-ed. This could become a major financial burden for the City when the greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system goes into effect, which would require the City to pay for the privilege of pollution. Monitoring of greenhouse gases (and the associated expense) may be required as soon as January 1, 2010.

Since 2001, Brad van Guilder has been working with Anna Holden and Ed McArdle of the Sierra Club to monitor the incinerator. Implementing waste reduction through reuse and recycling, they say, will reduce pollution and global warming, create jobs and save money.

In the fall of 2006, ten community and environmental groups came together in The Coalition for a New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste: Sierra Club Southeast Michigan Group, Rosedale Recycles, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit, Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), Greenacres Woodward Civic Association, Sierra Club Environmental Justice, Ecology Center, Michigan Environmental Council, East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

In 2008, the Coalition began working on the New Business Model for Solid Waste Management to emphasize waste reduction, with an intermediate use of landfills, toward a goal of zero waste. The New Business Model shows that while the incinerator employs 160 workers, switching to recycling and landfill would employ 200 to 300, plus create the possibility of 1000 more jobs in recycling businesses. These businesses are predicted to generate $40 million in private investment to the local economy, saving Michigan residents the tax dollars currently being paid to operate the incinerator.

With the Coalition making the public aware of the issue, Detroit City Council voted in June 2008 to stop sending Detroit garbage to the incinerator. And during his election campaign last winter, Mayor Dave Bing stated:

In fiscal year 2007–2008, Detroit residents paid $172/ton for trash disposal — about 5–7 times as much as nearby suburbs, and about 14 times what private haulers paid to have their trash burned at the incinerator ($172/ton versus $12/ton).

In 2008, the city council voted to end sending our trash to its waste to energy incinerator. I support this action. Detroit can sell materials that are currently going into the incinerator on the global market. The City cannot sell what now it burns. That is more money that could be earmarked for our deficit.

The Coalition is working to assure that the mayor and City Council keep those promises.

The Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA), on June 18, approved a resolution for a month-to-month contract with Covanta Energy, which operates the incinerator, to continue burning for one year while cost issues are clarified, then possibly for another five years. The Coalition immediately went into action, meeting with council members and urging residents to express their opposition to burning. On June 30, Detroit City Council voted 6-2 to file for an injunction to stop hauling Detroit garbage to the incinerator.

Prospects for Ending Use of the Incinerator Within the Next Year

“It’s important for residents to know that if the City stops sending its trash to the incinerator, garbage collection will continue without interruption,” says van Guilder. “It will just go to landfills.” The GDRRA has always had in place contingency plans for waste disposal in case the incinerator had a major failure or collapsed financially.

For the last 20 years, the incinerator has been the primary source of steam for a district heating system that stretches from Henry Ford Hospital to downtown including the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. Mr. Beckham, new chair of the GDRRA board, and others have claimed that closing the incinerator would leave Detroit Thermal, operator of the steam distribution system, without steam for its customers. In fact, since July 1, 2009, Detroit Thermal has been using its own steam generating capacity to supply the system. The transition was seamless and uses much cleaner burning natural gas. The cost of investing in energy conservation for the buildings on the steam system and improvements in the steam lines themselves will cost less than continuing to operate an expensive incinerator.

The sale of steam has been the single largest source of revenue to offset a fraction of the huge expense of operating the incinerator. Without sales of steam to Detroit Thermal, Covanta Energy is losing an estimated $500,000 per week in potential revenue. Failing to negotiate the many contracts for the operation of the complex system could doom the incinerator financially and demonstrates the very high financial risk to both the City and businesses in the City if they rely on the operation of the incinerator. This high risk was outlined to the GDRRA board by its own consultant in a Strategic Operating Alternatives Report issued in July 2007.

The GDRRA has largely withheld information from the Detroit City Council preventing that legislative body from timely access to information to be able to fulfill its duty to make informed decisions on the budget of the City. The filing of an injunction by the Detroit City Council could lead to a judge granting the right of discovery, thereby finally shedding light on a highly questionable process of decisions awarding contracts for city waste disposal. Hopefully the granting of an injunction will lead to an investigation that will terminate the GDRRA’s abusive relationship with the City of Detroit.

“Covanta has asked for a meeting with our coalition, which I see as a sign that their attempts to finalize the deal are falling apart,” says van Guilder.

Coalition for a New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste Press Statement

Coalition Calls for Mayor Bing to do the Right Thing: Outrage at Council’s reversal on New Business Model for Solid Waste and Ending of Incineration

May 27, 2009

Detroit, MI: During the mayoral campaign, Mayor Dave Bing stated that he supports an end to incineration of Detroit’s trash, “The City cannot sell what it burns,” in his support for the New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste. Mayor Bing’s immediate action on the proposed City Budget is crucial to ending incineration of Detroit trash and expanding the business opportunities based on materials recovery.

Yesterday the City Council reversed itself and voted against Councilwoman JoAnn Watson’s resolution for City budget amendments to further advance the economic development and jobs that are the core of the New Business Model, and end incineration. Council’s action provides $24M to continue burning of city garbage, which is $1.7M more than the combination of recycling and landfilling proposed by the Coalition for a New Business Model. Council President Pro-tem Monica Conyers alone supported Ms. Watson’s resolution.

Sandra Turner Handy, Michigan Environmental Council, had this reaction: “Shame, shame, shame, on City Council that they would subject the citizens to the continuous air pollution emitted by the incinerator, especially after voting to end incineration of Detroit trash last year. It clearly shows that the best interest and health of the residents are not their concern nor their priority. They voted against the creation of job opportunities that are linked to recycling.”

Donele Wilkins, Executive Director, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, expressed it this way. “I am sadly disappointed in the City Council’s reversal on the New Business Model for Solid Waste. It feels like a betrayal. They turned their backs on an opportunity for the City to move in a new direction. This decision by Council shows they are blind to the great potential of the New Green future for Detroit.”

The New Business Model for Solid Waste moves the City away from incineration into the green opportunities from waste reuse, reduction and recycling. As the City says in promoting the Pilot Curbside Recycling program, “Recycling saves natural resources, energy, landfill space and money, and creates less air and water pollution.”

The Coalition for a New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste is a group of community and environmental groups: Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Detroit Bioneers, Ecology Center, Rosedale Recycles, Michigan Environmental Council, MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), Sierra Club, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Greenacres Woodward Civic Association, and Environmental Justice Initiative.

Too Close or Not Too Close?

The decision on whether or not to close the Detroit Incinerator to be made on Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The City of Detroit currently faces a historic deadline of July 1, 2008 to close the largest trash incinerator in the world. The incinerator burns nearly 800,000 tons of trash per year currently at a cost of over $170 per ton to Detroit residents (5-7 times the cost of suburbs that recycle and landfill). Hazardous air pollutants from the facility include mercury, lead and dioxins. Asthma hospitalization rates in Detroit are 3-4 times the average rate of the state of Michigan. In addition to these staggering figures, Detroit is the only city of the 30 largest cities in the United States without any form of curbside recycling.

In 2005, the Detroit Incinerator was the 5th largest stationary source of Nitrogen Oxides, which is a critical component of smog (ground-level ozone). Wayne County is currently in violation of USEPA health standards for smog and soot (particulate matter). Hazardous air pollutants from the facility include mercury, lead and dioxins. Asthma hospitalization rates in Detroit are 3-4 times the average rate of the state of Michigan. Both smog and soot contribute to and aggravate asthma.

Trash is an inefficient fuel for generating steam and electricity, creating more global warming carbon dioxide per unit of energy than any other fuel. Recycling will create far less pollution, save more energy than the facility produces, and bring the potential for many more jobs in recycling based manufacturing. The current system binds the City financially and legally to incinerate waste with prohibitive barriers to recycling.

A broad coalition of community organizations – environmental, civil rights, health, labor, faith-based and social service advocates – have proposed a New Business Model for Solid Waste Management in Detroit, which has been endorsed and supported by the Detroit City Council by a 6-2 majority. This plan would implement a curbside recycling pilot program by January 1, 2009 and close the incinerator at the end of its current contracts on June 30, 2009. Closing the facility must include a funded plan to assist every displaced worker in finding a similar job at similar compensation.

The administration of Mayor Kilpatrick has agreed to a smaller pilot curbside recycling program, but appears opposed to ending incineration, which means there will not be significant recycling. The operations of the facility are overseen by the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA). Board members are appointees of the Mayor of Detroit.

View our June 18, 2008, press release: Incineration is Big Climate Problem, New Report Says

View the following video, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press:

View part 2 and part 3 of this story on YouTube.

For more information:
Brad van Guilder, the Community Organizer
Ecology Center
734-663-2400 x114

Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority Strategic Alternatives Report

Will Detroit close its massive incinerator for curb-side recycling?

The city of Detroit could decide by the end of 2007 whether to close the incinerator that burns more than 700,000 tons of garbage a year. While the more than $1 Billion debt on the facility should be paid by July 2009, the planning for what to do next takes years. At the end of July 2007, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA) made available to the public the Strategic Operating Alternatives Report prepared by Dvirka & Bartilucci Consulting Engineers and Urban Engineering Solutions, P.C. GDRRA is the public authority responsible for overseeing the Detroit incinerator. The Ecology Center is making available the Executive Summary of the report along with our initial comments submitted to GDRRA during the brief public comment period in August 2007. GDRRA is preparing a short version of the report (estimated at 10 pages). Residents should contact both GDRRA and the Detroit City Council to call for public meetings to solicit your desires for solid waste management that is affordable, supports neighborhoods, and protects public health. The full report is available from the GDRRA Web site.

For more information:
Brad van Guilder, Community Organizer
Ecology Center
(734) 663-2400 x114

Detroit’s Future Without a Trash Incinerator

Detroit City Council Environmental Task Force Approves Future Solid Waste Plan

detroit riverfrontOn January 12, 2007 the Detroit City Council Environmental and Recycling Task Force, chaired by councilwoman Joann Watson, approved a report creating a framework for the future of Detroit’s solid waste management. The plan calls for closing Detroit’s trash incinerator in 2009 when the heavy debt burden of bonds are paid. The report emphasizes the creation of jobs and improvements in public health through pollution prevention by implementing a comprehensive recycling program. According to Waste News, Detroit is the only city of the thirty largest cities in the United States that does not have any form of curb-side recycling. The report conservatively estimates that a 50% recycling rate in Detroit would likely result in creating more than 1,000 new jobs in the city of Detroit.

Detroit Environmental Task Force Solid Waste Plan 2007 (pdf format)

For additional information, including a higher resolution format of the report, contact:
Brad van Guilder, Community Organizer
Ecology Center
(734) 663-2400 x114

Detroit Waste Incinerator: Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

The City of Detroit could have saved over $55 million in just one year if it had never built the incinerator.

October 2005

What could the City of Detroit do with a billion dollars? Wasteful and impractical only begin to describe how the City of Detroit, faced with a $300 million deficit for the current fiscal year, will have misspent about one billion dollars over the course of 20 years on a single project — the Detroit Incinerator.

It’s worth it to imagine a “What if?” scenario to illustrate the incredible folly that has come to plague a city in perpetual financial trouble — currently facing hundreds of layoffs and a continuing population decline — because it illustrates the dire need for an alternative. What if Detroit never built the incinerator and simply landfilled all of its trash instead?

In 2003, Detroit generated 575,896 tons of trash. Operation of the Detroit Incinerator is overseen by the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA), which has a contract with City Management (a subsidiary of Waste Management) for disposal of trash at a landfill for $33.25/ton. Had Detroit landfilled its trash in 2003, the total bill would have come to a little over $19 million. The amount GDDRA charged Detroit to burn the trash? An unbelievable $75 million, or over $130/ton! The City of Detroit could have saved over $55 million in just one year if it had never built the incinerator.

The total cost (tipping fee) for Detroit to “dispose” of less than 600,000 tons of trash in Fiscal Year 2005-06 (FY0506) is budgeted at $81,129,823, which is over $135/ton to burn or bury trash. This does not include the cost of trash collection, which is an additional $11,445,983. Compare this to the nearby communities of the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority (SOCRRA) whose members paid an average of less than $29/ton for a combination of disposal and recycling services during FY0405.

The single largest debt of the City of Detroit is its bill for the construction and additional pollution controls for Detroit’s trash incinerator. The debt payment owed to Comerica Bank and the Bank of New York for Fiscal Year 2005-06 (FY0506) is estimated at $67.4 million. Detroit’s contract with GDRRA and debt on the incinerator is for 20 years (1989-2009) so the city will have wasted more than one billion dollars for building and operating the incinerator. All of the current contracts for operation and debt of the incinerator end in 2009.

To further complicate things, in 1991 the City of Detroit was also facing a deficit. GDRRA sold the Detroit Incinerator for $634.9 million to Philip Morris Capital Corp. (tobacco) and Aircraft Services Corp. (a subsidiary of General Electric). Detroit received $54 million from the sale but is now beholden to these private interests in a sale-leaseback agreement. If Detroit wanted to end the use of the incinerator for trash “disposal” before 2009, the city would have to pay these private interests an early closure penalty. If it were not for this penalty the city could close the incinerator, finish paying off the construction debt and still possibly save some money by landfilling the trash instead, or better yet implementing comprehensive recycling.

The Detroit Incinerator has also been an environmental disaster. It is a major source of air pollution for the region. The latest readily available data (1999) from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks the incinerator #6 of 124 major sources in Wayne County for nitrogen oxides (1,444 tons). Nitrogen oxides create ground-level ozone (smog) and contribute to global warming. The incinerator is also ranked #8 of 106 major sources in Wayne County for sulfur dioxide (170 tons). Both nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide aggravate respiratory illnesses (such as asthma) and contribute to acid rain.

How does SOCRRA keep its costs so low? Under the City Management contract with GDRRA, Waste Management delivers SOCRRA’s non-recyclable trash to the Detroit Incinerator at a cost of only $10.45/ton! The residents of Detroit not only have to breathe the pollution from the incinerator but they subsidize the cost of burning Oakland County’s trash as well.

There will be an opportunity for a better alternative when all of the contracts and debt end in 2009. Whoever is elected the next mayor of Detroit will decide whether the city will continue the dirty and expensive practice of running an incinerator or turning to the cleaner and cheaper practice of comprehensive recycling.

For more information:
Brad van Guilder, Community Organizer
Ecology Center
(734) 663-2400 x114

More about the Detroit incinerator

GOT A COMPLAINT about the operations at the Detroit incinerator? Download our odor/air pollution log and become part of the team to keep both the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality accountable for operations of the Detroit incinerator. Instructions are included with the odor log:

Detroit’s Solid Waste Future Choices (pdf)