Breathe Free Detroit demonstration

Breathe Free Detroit Delivers Research Report and 15,000 Signatures to Mayor Duggan

On May 18, Breathe Free Detroit activists gathered at the Spirit of Detroit statue to release an extensive research report on the Detroit trash incinerator and to deliver a petition signed by 15,000 people to Mayor Mike Duggan. Local residents, concerned citizens, and environmental organizations including the Ecology Center brought complex findings and clear conclusions: the Detroit trash incinerator is expensive, dirty, unjust, and dangerous. It needs to be shut down.

The Ecology Center contributed to this 18-page report, which outlines the Detroit Renewable Power incinerator’s current operations, its history, and its effect on the neighboring community—including a recent history characterized by recurrent violations of the Clean Air Act, endangering the families who live near the incinerator.

Between 2013 and 2017, the aging facility clocked over 750 violations of safe air emission limits and received 48 odor violation notices. In 2016 alone—a typical year—the incinerator released over 1,800 tons of hazardous emissions into Detroit’s air. Falling into the two broad categories “criteria pollutants” and “hazardous air pollutants,” these emissions harm human health in diverse and serious ways.

Criteria pollutants include harmful gases like sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide as well as fine particles that lodge in airways to cause breathing problems, including respiratory infections, acute breathing difficulties that can result in hospitalization, and long-term development of asthma. Children, seniors, and people with heart and lung conditions are particularly vulnerable, and Detroit children suffer from asthma at rates so high that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has called Detroit the “epicenter of asthma.” Children living near the incinerator are five times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than those elsewhere in the state.

Hazardous air pollutants are known and probable carcinogens; the incinerator releases heavy metals such cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury as well as volatile organic compounds such as dioxins and furans. Many of these toxic chemicals are associated with a range of negative health effects beyond elevated cancer risk, including impairment of the developing nervous system, the reproductive system, and the immune system.

These harmful air pollutants can travel far, but those living close-by feel the incinerator’s effects most acutely. Visible nuisances portend invisible threats. Thunderous noise or the sour smell of rotting trash, waiting to be burned, sometimes drives residents out of their yards.

The incinerator isn’t isolated in a remote industrial district. It sits near the heart of the city, surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Over 76,000 children’s homes are within 5 miles of the incinerator. Approximately 22,000 people live in a mere 1.5-mile radius of the incinerator. Of these, 76 percent are people of color and 71 percent are low income. Thirteen schools educate children there. Golightly Elementary's playground sits just 1,300 feet from the facility.

In a textbook case of environmental injustice, these burdened communities don’t reap whatever benefits come with such severe costs. The Detroit incinerator is the largest facility of its kind in the country, and approximately 75% of what it burns is garbage imported from neighboring counties, other states, and Canada. The private corporation that owns and operates the facility, Detroit Renewable Energy, profits from trash collection fees and from selling steam (a byproduct of incineration), both directly as steam heating and indirectly for steam-generated electricity. It’s an inefficient energy source, but a lucrative one.

While Detroit Renewable Energy makes money from burning imported garbage, families suffer. The facility is costly to the city, too. Detroit bears the burden of $2.6 million in health costs associated with incinerator pollution each year. Adding further insult to injury, the City of Detroit pays more money to process its own waste than most of the cities who export their trash—often more affluent, whiter communities. Detroit pays $25 per ton; the Grosse Pointes pay $16.

Detroit Renewable Energy hasn’t been held accountable for illegal pollution, either. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality negotiated with DRE last year, ultimately imposing a fine for only eight pollution violations in 2015 and 2016, to citizens’ outrage. Kathryn Savoie, Detroit community health director for the Ecology Center, describes it as “kind of mind-boggling — people are just blown away. They violate the law; then they get to sit and negotiate how much they should be fined."

In the two weeks after the report’s release, news of Breathe Free Detroit’s findings and efforts have spread nationwide, with Associated Press coverage published by news outlets across the country from The Seattle Times to the Miami Herald.

Still, the trash is burning.

The Ecology Center is working to shut the incinerator down. Join forces with us and our grassroots coalition of citizens and organizations that comprise Breathe Free Detroit—including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and the East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Stay informed and get involved by following Breathe Free Detroit on Facebook or Twitter.  If you live near the facility, report odors by calling the MDEQ’s Pollution Emerging Alert System hotline 24/7 at (800) 292-4706 and loud noises from the facility to the City of Detroit Ombudsman at (313) 224-6000 or City Clerk at (313) 224-3260.

Together, we can stop this injustice and clean up Detroit’s air.