Detroit Incinerator Faces Possible Legal Action

The Detroit Incinerator, the largest municipal trash incinerator in the U.S., faces a potential lawsuit from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center for violating 40 Clean Air Act and state violations. Since its construction in the 1980s, the incinerator has raised concern of residents for its persistent odor and emission of polluting substances.

Detroit Renewable Power, the company behind the incinerator, says the law center’s notice “repeats allegations that have already been made.” In 2014, a settlement was reached by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality with DRP and Michigan Waste Energy, Inc. The settlement, in response to state citations against DRP and odor complaints from residents, required DRP and Michigan Waste to re-engineer the facility’s air ducts, pay a $5,000 per day fine for future violations, and pay a $350,000 fine to resolve past odor violations.

In an email response to The Detroit News, DRP says that the company “places the highest priority on complying with the strict and complex requirements” by the EPA, and has already “invested approximately $6 million the last two years to improve odor management.” The DRP concludes by stating: “In short, we have done our part. Any claim to the contrary would simply be false.”

The Environmental Law Center, however, reports that since 2015, DRP has committed 21 violations for strong odors and 19 violations for carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter emissions above legal limits. Residents living near the facility, located at 5700 Russell Street, are concerned about the effects the incinerator could have on their health. While the incinerator can’t be directly linked to cases of asthma, the surrounding neighborhoods have hospitalization rates for asthma that are 2.5 times the state average. The law center’s filing said “particulate matter emissions have been shown to trigger asthma incidents, particularly amongst children.” Detroit resident Sandra Turner-Handy told The Guardian, “It’s the things that you can’t smell that are the most harmful. And how do residents report something that they can’t smell?”

DRP is permitted to receive as much as 20,000 tons of waste per week, and in 2015 burned more than 650,000 tons of garbage. Detroit pays $25 per ton of waste disposed, which Crain’s Detroit Business reported last year is about 20 percent more than some neighboring communities who pre-sort waste or recycle pay. The incinerator burns an estimated 2800 tons of commercial and household waste each day. The law center reports that a majority of the trash burned is imported from outlying communities, which pay as low as $13 a ton. The law center said in its filing that the incinerator presents a clear environmental justice issue. According to the EPA, 7,280 residents live within one mile of the incinerator, 60 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line and 87 percent are people of color.

“In short, Detroit is subsidizing other communities throughout the State of Michigan, the Midwest, and Canada to dispose of its garbage at the Incinerator,” the filing said, with the incinerator “located in a neighborhood that is composed mostly of low-income people of color and is heavily overburdened by air pollution”, as cited by Ryan Felton reporting for The Guardian.

“It is not acceptable that as Detroiters move toward city-wide recycling and reducing the amount of their waste that goes into the incinerator, that they are subject to poor air quality and respiratory health issues due to waste from other communities and Detroit Renewable Power’s repeated failure to control air pollution as required by law,” Turner-Handy said in a press release as reported by The Detroit News.

Activists are pushing for a ballot in Nov. 2017 to close the Detroit Incinerator in favor of cleaner energy-producing methods. Only 11 percent of households in Detroit recycle, and Mac Far, treasurer and spokesperson for Sustainable Detroit, says a “robust, citywide recycling program” could “divert a lot of material out of the waste stream if we were to shut of incineration as a method of disposal.” Speaking for Sustainable Detroit, Far says, “we could take a policy change and use it to both unify the city and also make the lives of Detroiters better.”