By Alex Honold
One of 50 stories, from 50 years of action
Cheryl Graunstadt's environmental activism began the day she received a letter from the principal of her children’s elementary school in 1991. It informed her and other parents that Wayne County’s Cooper Elementary School, built in 1963, sat on top of an old industrial landfill. The school was awaiting soil testing from the backlogged Department of Natural Resources, but in the meantime, it told parents that Cooper was still a safe place for children to learn and play. Graunstadt wasn’t so sure. She and a friend went to investigate for themselves. When they arrived at the playground, they discovered pieces of broken glass rising from the gravel and an orange-colored slime behind the property. Graunstadt went to work organizing other concerned parents to sound the alarm, first locally and then nationally. Within a year, the administrators agreed to relocate students to a new school.
Graunstadt soon learned that Westland wasn’t the only city in the area exposing children to toxic waste. Less than ten miles away, in Dearborn Heights, the Central Wayne waste incinerator sat adjacent to an elementary school playground.
This massive incinerator was built in 1961 to serve five Wayne County cities. Central Wayne was one of many municipal waste incinerators built in the state during the latter half of the 20th century, in addition to the thousands of smaller onsite incinerators that were built by school districts, hospitals, and corporations. By the 1990s, incinerators were the second largest source of mercury and dioxin pollution in the country.
In response, and starting in the early 1990’s, the Ecology Center worked extensively with community groups on anti-incinerator campaigns both because of the broad toxic environmental fallout that resulted from incineration and the fact that poorer communities and communities of color were often the ones who bore its worst health and environmental effects.
Notably, the Ecology Center played a critical role in forcing the eventual 2019 closure of Detroit’s municipal incinerator, once the largest in the country (Playing the Long Game: How Detroiters Finally Won the 30 Year Fight to Shut Down Enormous Trash Incinerator) [LINK TO DETROIT INCINERATOR ARTICLE]. At the same time, the Ecology Center led multiple campaigns to shut down the state’s 157 medical waste incinerators, including hospital incinerators at the University of Michigan and Henry Ford Health System.
Several years after successfully advocating for the closure of her children’s elementary school, Graunstadt set her sights on closing the Central Wayne incinerator. She was joined by a coalition of environmental organizations, including the Ecology Center, the Southeast Michigan Group of the Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action. Together this coalition informed community members about the dangers of the incinerator, pressured the local governments of the five participating cities to end their contracts with CWSA, lobbied CWSA officials to transition away from incineration, and made their case to the press through multiple interviews and op-eds.
“Stop the Burn” at Central Wayne
As with most municipal incinerators in the state, Central Wayne’s was plagued with problems. The noise, described by one resident as “like a whining wood chipper,” drove many locals “nuts”. But noise was far from the most concerning issue. In May of 1989, the Department of Natural Resources declared the incinerator to be one of the largest producers of toxic ash in the state. The ash, often buried in landfills without adequate lining, began leaching toxic metals like cadmium and lead into the groundwater. Ecology Center board member and grassroots activist Ed McArdle remembered seeing piles of toxic ash while hiking next to the Huron River.
While the health and environmental damage caused by incineration can spread over vast areas, its most pernicious effects are often experienced by those closest to the facilities. In the case of Central Wayne, these were the residents living near the Dearborn Heights-Inkster border.
Black Population of Southeast Detroit by Percentage (1990)
According to 1990 census records, the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the facility were over 95% Black, while the generators of the waste fed into the incinerator were mainly White. Compared to their wealthier neighbors, Dearborn Heights and Inkster residents also experienced higher rates of asthma, low birth weights, and birth defects.
Despite the problems, CWSA announced in 1990 it would double the capacity of the incinerator. The decision was perplexing, not only because of the environmental repercussions, but because incineration in the 1990s was an incredibly expensive method for disposing of waste. In 1997, Central Wayne had a disposal fee of $58 per ton. That price was roughly four times the average fee to dump trash in a landfill. It turned out that residents in the five-city region were paying enormous rates just to have their trash ejected into the air they breathe. This unjustifiable financial burden would become a central talking point in the campaign to shut down the incinerator.
In 1995, the Ecology Center joined with Wayne County community members and other environmental organizations in the effort. In 1997, the Ecology Center issued a report that highlighted the environmental, health, and economic untenability of incineration. The report noted that recycling was a cost-competitive alternative and pointed to the success of Recycle Ann Arbor as a model. That same year, the Ecology Center also testified to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) against the proposed expansion of the Central Wayne Incinerator. In their testimony, the Ecology Center discussed how the CWSA, in conducting their risk assessment of the expansion, neglected to disclose the dangers posed by the interactions of different airborne toxins and the potential dangers of compounds for which no long term studies existed. The Ecology Center made a further appeal to environmental justice, pointing out that the incinerator expansion “will differentially impact low-income residents and people of color.”
The testimony and the coalition's early efforts could not stop the expansion, which began in 1998 after CWSA struck a 35-year contract with Central Wayne Energy Recovery LP (CWERLP). Nevertheless, the “Stop the Burn'' coalition continued to make their case to the public and city governments. Graunstadt, who in 2001 won a seat on Westland’s City Council, appealed to her constituents' pocket books, arguing that Westland residents shouldn’t be on the hook for paying for any part of the expansion or future repairs, "a debt” she said “that never seems to end." The Ecology Center and Clean Water Action supported Graunstadt’s effort in Westland by organizing a campaign that sent over 400 constituent letters to Westland’s mayor and city council, encouraging them to shut down the incinerator. In a 2019 interview, Ed McArdle explained that the strategy of convincing the five cities to take their trash elsewhere proved to be the death knell of the already financially struggling incinerator.
Clip from Ed McArdle Interview
In 2003, CWERLP announced that they had defaulted on the $80 million in bonds they had been issued to expand the facility, and the incinerator was abruptly shut down. The coalition knew that this might only be temporary, so in early December 2003, representatives from the Ecology Center, the Windsor Essex County Environment Committee, and the Sierra Club as well as residents of Inkster came to the MDEQ public review meeting to voice their opposition to a proposed permit which would allow the cash-strapped incinerator to burn scrap plastic in addition to the garbage collected from the five cities. The incinerator was permanently shut down on Earth Day, 2004, and -- less than a year later -- construction crews began working to dismantle the 225 ft smoke stack that had spewed toxic smoke into Wayne county for so many years.
An ongoing battle
The Ecology Center and its activist partners have had varying degrees of success in shutting down the state’s incinerators. Through its work with Health Care Without Harm, the Ecology Center helped to shutter nearly all of the state’s 157 medical waste incinerators by 2005. In Jackson County, the Ecology Center supported local activists like Travis Fojtasek in lobbying for the closure of that county’s incinerator, which closed in 2013. Other facilities, like Flint’s Genesee Power Station’s wood waste incinerator, the Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority’s sludge incinerator, and Holcim’s cement incinerator continue to operate, despite opposition from the Ecology Center and local activists.
The successful closure of the Central Wayne facility highlights an important model for activists. In Central Wayne, the Ecology Center and local activists did not only expose the unjustifiable practice of waste incineration, but they made economic appeals that were convincing to many residents and city officials across the political spectrum. They also highlighted the injustices that communities of color and poorer communities have and continue to face because of discriminatory waste disposal practices.