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Environmental

The big burn

America's largest garbage incinerator and the movement to shut it down

MT Photo: Rebecca Cook
City Council member JoAnn Watson.
Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams.
MT Photo: Rebecca Cook
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Curt Guyette discusses this story on WDET (MP3)
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Published 4/2/2008

The deadline is fast approaching.

Within the next three months, Detroit must make a monumental decision regarding the 1 billion pounds of waste its residents produce each year.

To burn, or not to burn — that is the question.

Confronted with that same dilemma more than two decades ago, the city responded by constructing the largest municipal waste incinerator in America. Detroit went for the big burn — and has been paying for it in a big way ever since.

By some estimates, Detroit's decision to turn its garbage into smoke and ash will have cost $1.2 billion by the time the incinerator is finally paid off next year.

All for a facility the city no longer owns.

The incinerator was sold to private investors in 1991, but the city — through the fees it pays to burn its trash — has continued to shoulder the facility's crushing financial burden. According to an analysis done by the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Detroit currently spends $172 a ton to burn its trash and then send the ash that remains to a dump. That compares to the $18.75-per-ton cost a coalition of 12 southern Oakland County communities pays to landfill its garbage.

Moreover, less than half the waste burned at the facility comes from Detroit residents. Private haulers who pay rates as low as $12 per ton bring in the rest. So, in essence, Detroit residents pay a subsidy to burn other people's garbage and breathe the smoke it produces.

Next year the incinerator will finally be paid off, presenting Detroiters with a pivotal choice. The city can continue leasing, buy the place back, or walk away from the deal entirely.

If the city walks, the likelihood is that the incinerator will be torn down and sold for scrap, because it can't compete economically with landfills.

Ironically, it was the fear of skyrocketing landfill costs that helped justify construction of the incinerator in the first place.

As noted in a recent report by Irv Corley, director of the Detroit City Council's financial analysis division, had circumstances regarding waste disposal taken a different course, the investment in what's formally known as the Detroit Resource Recovery Facility might have "been viewed as one of vision and foresight. ..."

During the 1980s, incinerators like the one on Ferry Street near the junction of I-94 and I-75 were touted as an innovative way to turn a negative into a positive. Faced with widely shared concerns about the long-term affordability of landfills, state and local leaders cast an approving eye toward a new generation of incinerators capable of turning refuse into energy. Instead of paying to bury garbage in dumps, it could be burned to generate income-producing steam and electricity.

To many, it looked like a win-win situation. An incinerator could free Detroit of worries that shrinking space and stricter environmental regulations would cause landfill costs to soar. And — with the oil embargo of the 1970s and the soaring gasoline prices that resulted still a fresh memory — what was literally waste could be converted into something both useful and desired: a steady source of primary fuel whose price and availability didn't depend on vagaries of global markets and Middle Eastern politics.

Ed McArdle, a longtime Sierra Club activist, says he initially had an open mind about the incinerator.

"When it was first proposed, I thought that if they could burn the waste cleanly and control the pollution, that maybe it would be OK," the Melvindale resident says.

But that view quickly changed as the amount of chemicals and toxic gases that would spew from the smokestack became better known.

"It didn't take long to realize that this was a really bad idea," says McArdle, who has kept a close eye on operations at the incinerator for as long as it has existed.

The plant, which cost $438 million to build, began operation in 1989, though not without considerable concern about the risks posed by stack emissions. People marched in opposition. Greenpeace came and slung a banner from a Renaissance Center tower.

Two years later, an additional $171.5 million investment was required to upgrade pollution control equipment. The facility was sold in 1991 to a pair of private investors — Phillip Morris Capital (part of a conglomerate created by the tobacco giant that makes Marlboros) and General Electric Capital (whose parent company builds, among other things, weapons and nuclear reactors). But the city remained obligated to pay off the bonds issued to cover the costs of construction and the equipment upgrades.

That's a short version of the history.

As for the future, there are more questions than answers at this point.

Although the lease and bond obligations expire next year, the key decision about what to do after that must be made by July 1. Even so, with less than three months to go, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority — the appointed body set up to oversee the incinerator — has neither issued a call for bids to find a new plant operator nor opened talks with landfill operators.

Negotiations to possibly buy the plant are under way, but the city is keeping mum on the potential price. And without knowing what that is, it is impossible to calculate how much Detroit would pay to keep burning its garbage.

It is not just about incineration vs. landfilling, either. As the imperative to fight global warming grows, the greenhouse gas emissions from both incineration and landfilling will become more costly. So finding ways to reduce and recycle the waste stream is crucial.

Economics is only part of the issue.

Among the incinerator's most vocal critics are City Council member JoAnn Watson and a coalition of the area's leading environmental groups and activists. They contend that the incinerator isn't just bad business. It's also dangerous, spewing toxic chemicals and dangerous gases that pose a health hazard to the surrounding community, which is primarily poor and black. The way the incinerator opponents see it, Detroit has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a giant leap forward, addressing a serious health problem while at the same time putting us in the company of a growing number of cities and regions that see the green movement as key to economic development.

Because of all that, Watson says, there is no more important issue facing Detroit than the decision regarding the incinerator. But getting people to pay attention has been difficult. Since January, local media and area residents have been fixated on the scandal swirling around Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Even under the best of circumstances, generating interest in an issue as mundane as trash would be an immense challenge.

On top of that, to win the changes Watson and her allies want, it will be necessary to overcome a tendency toward bureaucratic inertia and the desire to stay with what you know. But, along with the gravitational pull of the status quo, incinerator opponents say they are also up against active corporate interests that want to see Detroit's garbage continue to burn. No new waste-to-energy incinerators have been issued permits since 1995, and with a trend toward closing aging plants, the last thing the industry wants to see is the demise of a flagship facility.

Expect no expense to be spared, says the Sierra Club's Rhonda Anderson. "It is a loss corporate interests don't want to take."

But Watson and her allies in the environmental movement have been chipping away. As chair of the council's environmental justice task force, Watson recently held public hearings on the issue. Activists are meeting with individual council members to explain the situation and lobby for their support. And two weeks ago, Watson introduced a resolution calling for a major shift in the way the city deals with its waste.

How Detroit decides to dispose of its trash will show — in ways both concrete and symbolic — what its priorities are, and what values are most important, Watson says.

The decision isn't in the hands of Watson and her fellow council members, however. The Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority — a five-member board composed of city officials appointed by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick — will determine whether Detroit continues burning its garbage or instead turns to a combination of landfills and recycling to manage its waste stream.

The authority's board is chaired by Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams. His stated position is that the evaluation process is still under way and no decision has been reached.

However, Watson and her allies fear that the process is like a train already moving in the direction of incineration, and that only a "critical mass" of public pressure will be able to get the board on a new track.

Adams did little to dispel those fears during a recent interview with the Metro Times.


ADMINISTRATION MAN

Anthony Adams may not be an elected official — he's a Kilpatrick appointee — but his political skills are immediately obvious.

With a spacious office that has a commanding view of the Detroit riverfront, he's No. 2 in the city's executive chain of command. Like his boss, the mayor, he has an easygoing charm.

Chairing the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority is only one of his many duties, but his understanding of the issues is such that it's easy to believe that garbage is the only thing on his plate.

Saying that landfills remain a viable option, and that all the pros and cons of both choices continue to be weighed, he consistently downplayed criticism of incineration while highlighting problems associated with landfills.

For instance, he raised concerns about the unpredictability of fuel costs — a major factor when calculating the expense of garbage trucks making thousands of trips back and forth to dumps that might be 30 miles or more from the city.

There's also uncertainty about the future costs associated with landfills, he says.

"Landfill prices are low right now," he observes, "but 10 years from we might face another predicament." On the other hand, he says, the incinerator offers the security of costs that are more stable.

Exactly what those costs might be are impossible for anyone outside a very small loop to calculate, however, because Adams won't give even a hint of what the purchase price of the incinerator might be.

"We're not going to pay a king's ransom, I can tell you that much," is the most he will disclose.

Certainly the city is in a strong bargaining position; if it does not send its garbage to the incinerator, it is almost certain that the facility will close, says Adams.

Whatever it costs, the debt load will be much less than is currently the case — about $70 million for this year alone — once the current bonds are retired.

A 20-year-old incinerator, like a used car, isn't going to cost nearly as much as a new one. That much is certain.

Adams also raised concerns about replacing the electricity and steam produced by the incinerator, and the potential expense that might cause for city government — which is, ironically, a major customer. Steam from the facility is a major part of the supply that heats and cools much of downtown, including the buildings that house city government.

There are other complicating factors as well. As it stands now, electricity produced by the incinerator is sold to Detroit Edison, which has a long-term contract. If the incinerator closes, GDRRA stands to lose $25 million that's sitting in an escrow account. The money serves as a kind of insurance that guarantees Edison will be compensated for losses should GDRRA fail to supply electricity to the utility for the length of their contract, which extends to 2024.

In addition to drawing attention to the problems connected to closing the incinerator, Adams also downplayed the health concerns — a key factor for Watson and her allies.

"Environmentalists believe, rightly or wrongly, that the incinerator increases asthma and spews pollutants," he says. But the reality is that the facility's emissions are regulated and monitored, and that they remain below the established limits.

"The health claims," he contends, "are, in some respects, alarmist."

Rhonda Anderson has no problem with that description. She just gives it a different interpretation than the one Adams intended.

In her view there's good reason to be sounding an alarm.


OTHER SIDE OF THE WASTE STREAM

As the environmental justice coordinator for the Sierra Club in Detroit, Anderson sees the incinerator as a threat to the well-being of the people who live near it, and as a symbol of backward thinking.

"Image is critical to making progress in Detroit," she says. "You just can't have a big old incinerator like this sitting next to a new housing development."

"If we are not able to start looking at things differently," she says, "the little people at the bottom are going to stay there — at the bottom, looking up."

In an interview with Metro Times at her midtown office, Anderson and Brad van Guilder knock down many of the arguments in favor of incineration.

For starters, they dispute the contention that the incinerator offers a way to contain future costs, especially compared with landfills.

No one can tell you for certain how great the cost of running the incinerator will be in coming years, but even proponents of the facility admit there is a wild card that's almost certainly going to get played at some point in the near future: carbon-dioxide emissions. As it is now, CO2 isn't regulated as a pollutant, but it is a primary greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. As a result, some units of government are already mounting efforts to force reductions, either through so-called carbon taxes or other means.

The EPA under President George W. Bush has been slow to move, but the three leading candidates to replace him have all shown a level of enlightenment by sponsoring legislation designed to limit CO2 emissions. The likelihood is high that the federal government will step up its efforts once there's a new occupant in the Oval Office come 2009.

But even without that, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year allowing California to set its own standards regulating CO2 emissions from automobiles opened the door for states and regions to address the problem.

"The federal government may be dragging its feet on this, but some states are already moving ahead," says David Gard, director of the Michigan Environmental Council's energy program.

Gard points out that, last November, Gov. Jennifer Granholm joined five other Midwest governors in signing an agreement setting greenhouse gas reduction goals.

So far the governors of states in three regions — covering nearly half the U.S. population — have put their names to agreements intended to reduce greenhouse gases, promote energy conservation and fight global warming, according to Reuters.

As for the contention that going the landfill route means facing the great unknown in a decade, that, too, isn't necessarily the case.

Last year, the South Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority — which oversees waste issues for 12 communities with a combined population of 270,000 — entered into a 20-year contract with a landfill in Salem Township. The current cost to haul the waste about 30 miles from a central transfer station in Troy and dispose of it at the landfill is $18.75 per ton, says SOCRRA General manager Jeff McKeen. The agreement includes provisions for a 3 percent annual increase in cost.

The amount of trash is about one-third the volume processed at the Detroit facility. The good news for Detroit in that, says McKeen, is "generally speaking you expect lower prices for larger waste streams."

As Adams points out, however, landfills are not without their problems. Along with the greenhouse gas emissions from all those garbage trucks rolling back and forth, there's also the issue of methane, which is produced as organic material rots at the dumpsites. In terms of contributing to global warming, methane is about 25 times more potent than CO2.

As to pollution control and health effects from the incinerator, a January 2007 report produced by the Detroit City Council's environmental justice task force noted that the incinerator is permitted to release 3.6 million pounds of regulated toxins per year. "More than 50,000 pounds of these legal pollutants are classified as hazardous, including lead, mercury, cadmium and hydrogen chloride."

Also included in the emissions, according to the report, is dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known, and acid gases such as "sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that are harmful to the lungs and cardiovascular system and contribute to acid rain."

Detroit asthma rates in general are three times the national average, and the rates for hospitalizations from asthma attacks in Detroit are highest in the ZIP codes clustered around the incinerator, according to a report from Ann Arbor's Ecology Center.


TIGERS AND LAMBS

Both the city and the activists say they are committed to seeing Detroit make a leap forward when it comes to recycling.

The problem, say activists, is that recycling and incineration are inherently incompatible. Incinerators need fuel to produce their steam and electricity, and some of that fuel — plastics, for instance — while among the best candidates for recycling, also produce the most heat per pound when burned.

"It's like trying to marry a tiger and a lamb," says Paul Connett, a former chemistry professor at New York state's St. Lawrence University and a leading expert on incinerators.

Although there are some exceptions to the rule, he says, the commonplace result is not some mutant offspring.

"What happens," he says, "is that the tiger consumes the lamb." In other words, recycling efforts fall by the wayside in order to keep feeding the beast.

Detroit's recycling rate is a pitiful 3 percent of its waste steam. That compares to 15 percent in Boston, 23 percent in Chicago and 40 percent in Toronto. Other cities are achieving results that were unthinkable just a few decades ago.

One of those cities is Oakland, Calif., which has reduced the amount of trash it sends to landfills by 60 percent since 1990. Several factors contributed to that, the primary one being California's Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989. That act mandated that the state's municipalities reduce the amount of material going to landfills and incinerators by 50 percent by the year 2000.

Many of California's cities have exceeded that goal, says Neil Seldman, president of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"San Francisco just hit 70 percent and Los Angeles is at 62 percent," says Seldman. "And both communities have established goals of 90 percent by 2025."

In the case of Oakland, it hit the 50 percent mark and kept going. Having achieved a current rate of about 60 percent, it set a goal of 75 percent by 2010 with the eventual target of producing "zero waste."

"That goal establishes a mind-set that keeps us continuously improving," says Mark Gagliardi of Oakland's public services division.

By increasing recycling, Detroit can mitigate the negative impact of using landfills, experts say. Beyond that, recycling programs have the potential to be job creators. The City Council's environmental task force reported last year that, if the city were to achieve a 30 percent recycling rate, there would be a loss of perhaps 50 jobs at the incinerator, but an increase of 123 jobs by creating a so-called "materials recovery facility" where the recycled materials would be dealt with. Beyond that, the report states the potential for an additional 307 jobs in what's known as recycling-based manufacturing.

Seldman has identified a list of companies involved in recycling-related businesses that would set up shop in Detroit if there are two things: land and raw material. But the latter will be in short supply as long as the incinerator keeps burning. Two of the products that have the highest value in terms of fuel — paper and plastic — are also among the most valuable in terms of recycling potential.

If it gets burned it doesn't get recycled, meaning Detroit will continue to miss out on claiming its fair share of a multi-billion dollar industry that employs more than a one million people nationwide.

This is the direction JoAnn Watson and her allies want Detroit to move toward.

"We need to send the message that the greening of Detroit is a priority, and the way to do that is to shut down this incinerator," Watson says.

"We also need a understanding of how this new economy can work, and the jobs that would come from the greening of Detroit.

"This is an issue whose time is now. Even with all the other things going on, the issue of the incinerator must take center stage in the coming months. It's time for the media to start paying attention, and it's time for the activists to move away from singing "Kumbayah" and starting getting into people's faces.

"This is a fight we can win. And if we do win, it will be a victory for generations to come."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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