Detroit incinerator faces lawsuit over emissions

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit incinerator, long controversial for its burning of the city’s waste, is being targeted by a lawsuit that claims the facility repeatedly fails to meet safe air emission standards.

Officials with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue incinerator operator Detroit Renewable Power. Like previous owners of the facility, the company takes in thousands of tons of trash each day for incineration.

The incineration produces steam and electricity that Detroit Renewable Power sells to DTE Energy. The process also produces air emissions that are considered harmful to the public.

Great Lakes Environmental Law Center officials believe much of the 650,000 tons of burned trash at the facility in 2015 came from outside the immediate area, where health effects are the most severe. Oakland County was responsible for 66 percent of the waste, while Wayne County produced 19 percent.

Since January 2015, the incinerator has been cited 21 times for odor violations reported in surrounding neighborhoods and 19 times for emissions of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that registered above acceptable levels.

“It is not acceptable that as Detroiters move toward city-wide recycling and reducing the amount of their waste that goes to 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,” stated Sandra Turner Handy, community engagement for the Michigan Environmental Council, in a press release.

A spokesman for Detroit Renewable Power said the allegations listed in the notice are nothing new, and that the company is already working to address them with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“Detroit Renewable Power is a vital partner in the City’s ongoing renaissance, employing nearly 300 residents and helping our business customers prosper,” wrote Shaun Wilson, a spokesman for the company, in an email response to the questions. “DRP operates a sophisticated waste to energy facility and places the highest priority on complying with the strict and complex requirements established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the MDEQ. To that end, we have invested approximately $6 million the last two years to improve odor management at the facility. In short, we have done our part. Any claim to the contrary would simply be false.”

Also notified in the intent to sue document are Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental groups have pushed for years to halt operations at the incinerator, which sits near the Interstate 94 and I-75 intersection. The technology, they argue, is outdated and allows the region to burn trash and foul the air.

“Given the environmental injustice and health challenges that nearby residents continue to face because of the incinerator, it’s important that the Clean Air Act be aggressively enforced against the facility,” stated William Copeland, the climate justice director for the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, in the release.

A spokesman for Detroit Renewable Power did not immediately return a call for comment. But the company’s website refutes the notion that the facility is like incinerators of old.

“Modern EFW facilities such as DRP work very differently from old fashioned municipal ‘incinerators’ that were primarily built to reduce waste volume,” the site states. “Old incinerators burned trash inefficiently, had minimal (if any) air emission control systems, produced smoke, and did not recover any of the energy released during the combustion process.

“Our EFW facility produces steam and electricity that reduces burdens on landfills, recycles waste metals, doesn’t smoke, and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.”

A spokesman for DEQ could not be reached for comment early Tuesday.

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