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Published 5/21/2008

When Detroit Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams spoke at a "stop the incinerator" rally last week, it was a little bit like walking into a lion's den and then poking the lion with a sharp stick.

Give Adams credit for stepping into hostile territory. As Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's appointed head of the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority Board, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees operation of the Detroit municipal waste incinerator, Adams is the administration's point man in what is becoming an increasingly volatile debate.

Prodded by a broad-based coalition of environmental groups, the Detroit City Council recently passed a resolution directing the administration to stop sending trash to the incinerator at the end of June 2009, when the facility is finally paid off and key contracts expire. The council, on a 6-2 vote, declared that it wants the city to send its garbage to landfills, and to ramp up recycling in a big way during the coming years.

Adams says the administration has an open mind when it comes to the future of Detroit's trash, and is evaluating all its options. Skeptics maintain the administration is really just going through the motions, and has already decided that it wants to keep using the incinerator. Kilpatrick's veto of the council resolution (which the council overrode) only added to that skepticism.

Which brings us to last week's meeting at Detroit's First Unitarian-Universalist Church. There were more than 100 people there, and none of them was waving a sign reading "Save Our Incinerator."

So they weren't particularly pleased to hear Adams step up to the microphone and tell them, "It is not a simple thing to shut the incinerator down."

Things got downright ugly a moment later when Adams informed the crowd that there was a commitment to provide the incinerator with Detroit trash through 2021.

Jaws dropped throughout the room, and then angry hoots and shout-downs erupted. Even people who have been following the incinerator issue closely for the past two decades hadn't heard that claim before. Based on what's been reported in this rag's series of stories about the incinerator issue, News Hits was under the impression that the city was free to walk away from the burner next year if that's what it wanted to do. That turns out to be not quite right.

Afterward, we caught up with Brad van Guilder, who works at the nonprofit Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. From what we've seen, he understands the intricacies of the labyrinthine incinerator deal as well as anyone.

He says that the 2021 obligation is between the city and GDRRA, and that although the city does indeed need to keep letting the authority handle its trash disposal through that date, there is nothing committing the city to the burning of trash.

However, Adams is right when he says shutting down the incinerator is not a simple matter. Our understanding of the situation is this: GDRRA last week issued a call for bids from landfill operators to see what it would cost to send the city's garbage to a dump instead of the burner. The authority is also seeking bid proposals from potential operators of the incinerator.

In addition, Adams is in negotiations with the plant's owners to establish a potential purchase price. At last week's meeting, Adams said the only way to guarantee the incinerator gets shut down is for the city to buy it.

See, even though Detroit taxpayers will have shelled out an estimated $1.2 billion to pay off the bonds issued to construct the incinerator in the late 1980s and then pay for additional air pollution control equipment in the early '90s, the city sold the facility in 1993, receiving $53 million to plug a budget deficit.

Meanwhile, The Michigan Citizen's Eric T. Campbell scooped everyone by getting hold of a letter from Adams to one of the facility's two owners, Energy Investors Funds (EIF). EIF purchased Phillip Morris Capital's majority share of what's officially known as the Detroit Resource Recovery Facility earlier this year.

According to the report, EIF wants $45 million for the facility; Adams offered $30 million. As one of the reasons justifying the offer, Adams reportedly cited "the uncertainties associated with the future operation of the facility."

Critics contend that the incinerator can't remain viable without Detroit's garbage as fuel, and Adams is using the council's resolution as a negotiating tool to get a better deal.

Does that mean Detroit doesn't have to buy the place in order to force its closure? Maybe.

But there's another catch. As long as the incinerator's owners can meet or beat the best deal offered by a landfill, GDRRA must continue sending Detroit's trash to the incinerator.

Van Guilder says that shouldn't worry incinerator opponents. The way he sees it, the incinerator is so costly to operate, and landfill prices are currently so low, there's no way the burner can compete economically with a dump.

If all this has your head spinning, join the crowd. And this is only part of the big picture. Adding to complications are contracts with DET Energy for electricity (and $25 million sitting in an escrow fund the city could lose if it doesn't continue using the incinerator to generate electricity), contracts for steam delivery with Detroit Thermal and god knows what else.

Asked if it is at all concerned about the increasing pressure on the Kilpatrick administration to start diverting its trash from the incinerator, a spokesman for Energy Investor Funds responded with this e-mail message:

"After extensive review, we determined that the Detroit Resource Recovery Facility is in excellent condition, and well exceeds current EPA standards. It is capable of operating efficiently to generate needed electricity and steam for decades to come."

At last week's meeting, Carol Izant, who was active in opposing the incinerator during the late 1980s and early '90s, marveled how the saga continues to unfold.

"The more you learn about this," she said, "the crazier the story gets."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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