Breathe Free Detroit Town Hall Goes “Beyond Incineration”

For 33 years, the Detroit trash incinerator was among the worst examples of environmental injustice and environmental racism in the City of Detroit. For decades, Detroiters breathed burned trash, most of which came from other, mostly whiter, wealthier communities, 60% from suburban Oakland County. Now, after 33 years, the Detroit trash incinerator is closed. 

But its abrupt closure leaves many issues unaddressed and many questions unanswered. What is the future of the incinerator site? How will it be used, and what role can the community play in determining that? How will Detroit manage its waste now that it’s no longer being sent to the incinerator to be burned? What happens to the workers who were laid off when the incinerator company decided to close? What happens to the community, already witnessing gentrification and pressure from developers, now that air quality improves in the area surrounding the incinerator?

On June 14, 2019, Breathe Free Detroit joined with Zero Waste Detroit and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to host a Town Hall “Beyond Incineration: Waste, Energy and Just Transition” supported by Wayne State CURES, to celebrate the incinerator’s closure, and begin a conversation about “what comes next?” The event’s date marked a significant anniversary for the Detroit environmental justice movement, coming exactly 25 years after “Detroit’s First Environmental Justice Gathering” at Wayne County Community College that launched the movement for environmental justice in Detroit.

The program kicked off with welcoming remarks from “Baba” Darryl Jordan of East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Ecology Center’s Kathryn Savoie, speaking on behalf of Empower Michigan, and Margaret Weber for Zero Waste Detroit. Nick Leonard from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center shared an update about the incinerator and congratulated everyone who contributed to this community victory. “We did this. Collectively, we did this,” he said. 

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib linked the post-incinerator conversation in Detroit with the national conversation about a Green New Deal. “This is our opportunity to actually implement our values,” she said. “What does it look like to transition from this dirty awful polluting industry to what a clean, real climate justice looks like?” 

Rashida Tlaib

Detroit poet and activist Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty added a cultural element to the program, sharing a moving poem about the struggle of Detroiters to breathe free and live in a healthy environment. 

A panel of community leaders shared inspiring messages and models for zero waste and renewable energy. KT Andresky, Breathe Free Detroit Campaign organizer pointed out the importance of the community’s voice in determining the future of the incinerator site. “That’s publicly owned land. That’s our land,” she said, encouraging everyone to contact their elected officials.  Sandra Turner Handy of Zero Waste Detroit emphasized the need for increased transparency and accountability for City of Detroit waste contracts. Pashon Murray, owner of Detroit Dirt inspired us with her vision of food waste and composting as the basis of a new economy. Shimekia Nichols shared Soulardarity’s experience working for “people-powered clean energy” in Highland Park and recommended “green jobs leadership and jobs training” to ensure that we do not leave the community behind as we transition to cleaner ways of generating energy.  

The program ended with an open mic session. Attendees asked questions, shared ideas for alternative uses of the incinerator site, and a vision for embracing healthier, more sustainable ways of managing waste and generating energy in Detroit. Emcee, Dorthea Thomas from Good Jobs Now remarked, “This is not the end, but the beginning of the conversation.” Ecology Center looks forward to continuing to be part of this on-going conversation about zero waste, clean air, clean energy and good jobs for Detroit.


Published on June 27, 2019