Detroiters Challenge Incinerator Company for Right to Clean Air

Written by Melissa Sargent, Green Living Resources Director, Ecology Center & Ahmina Maxey, U.S. & Canada Regional Coordinator, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

Over the next three years, Detroiters will have a great chance to win a decades-old battle with a Goliath of a foe, a chance to win a healthier community, cleaner jobs, and a just transition to a clean energy future. That Goliath is the incinerator run by the corporation misnamed Detroit Renewable Power (DRP). In fact, it doesn't produce energy from solar or wind by from burning garbage and poisoning the air.

In 2021, the City of Detroit's land contract with incinerator operators DRP is up for renewal. Between now and then, Detroiters are working to claim their right to clean air by shutting down the incinerator and changing the way the city deals with waste.  

Last week, we joined our fellow community members at a hearing to discuss the impacts that the incinerator has had on our lives over the past decades.

This positive momentum was undeniable in the hearing room, where more than 70 community members spoke directly to DRP about how the incinerator negatively affects their health, their families, and their lives. But while Detroiters have learned to rethink their relationship with waste, it was clear that DRP’s Mike Marr’s remarks were at odds with what we know to be true. Contrary to what Marr said at the hearing, not only does the incinerator emit gas but it had 750 documented emissions exceedances over a five year period.

Despite misinformation from the company given at the hearing and in years past, we have made tremendous strides towards stopping the incinerator’s pollution. Earlier this year, Breathe Free Detroit delivered a petition to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan with nearly 15,000 signatures calling for the incinerator to be shut down and released a report detailing the staggering number of emissions violations over the years. In 2009, community members banded together to roll out the city’s first curbside recycling program, advocating for recycling over incineration. It’s clear that burning garbage is, thankfully, becoming an obsolete way of dealing with trash. Moreover, it’s downright dangerous. Detroiters are not only finding better ways to handle our waste, per the efforts of Zero Waste Detroit, but are coming up with strategies to prevent it from becoming waste in the first place.

The incinerator is one of the highest contributors of nitrogen oxide, (NOx) in the county, and NOx is one of the leading contributors of asthma. A Detroiter is three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma than other Michigan residents. Pollution from the DRP facility costs $2.6 million in health care costs each year. Clearly, Detroiters are paying for the incinerator every day — with our health and our wallets.

In 2021 the city’s contract with the incinerator is up for renewal, and our government representatives have a choice: continue to prop up this aging, obsolete waste burning machine that is threatening the health of our communities, or pursue a just transition that would provide Detroiters with good clean energy jobs, clean lungs, and a better future. We want to start working with city leaders now on a just transition plan now for how to best handle Detroit’s waste. Elected leaders and corporate officials need to ensure that workers employed at the facility can step into better and healthier jobs. Just transition also means residents are protected, not priced out or pushed out of their homes once the incinerator is gone and Midtown becomes even hotter property. It’s time for our leaders to recognize what those community members at last week’s hearing already know: 2021 is an opportunity to put Detroit onto the path toward a clean and green future.

This editorial was originally posted in the Detroit News. 

Published on November 15, 2018