Detroit incinerator seeks odor fix as neighbors raise stink

Waste is unloaded from trucks as it starts the process at Detroit Renewable Energy.

Detroit — Amid promises to be a better neighbor, a controversial incinerator just beyond downtown is being accused by the state of having "insufficient" control measures to limit its foul odors.

The state Attorney General's Office submitted a notice this summer to Detroit Renewable Energy on Russell Street informing the plant of a state determination that it needs upgrades before the facility can be released from a 2014 consent judgment.

State environmental officials say their findings are supported by a two-year assessment of odor complaints received by the Department of Environmental Quality "attributed to operation of the incinerator."

But company leaders at the facility, which came under new ownership last year, say they are working to fix the issues at the plant that converts garbage into energy for city customers, explaining they want to do better for the community.

Chief Operating Officer Michael Marr said Detroit Renewable Energy has "steps in hand" to beef up odor control and plans to invest tens of millions into infrastructure upgrades. 

“We want to be a good neighbor, and we recognize that we need to do a little better to be a good neighbor,” Marr told The Detroit News during a recent interview and site tour.  “The ownership is willing to make a large investment in this plant to improve its efficiency and to improve its odor control."

Detroit Renewable Energy COO Michael Marr looks into the MSW processing area, which breaks up the waste material as it continues down the line.

Marr said that the plant owners agree with the state's findings and fixes already are in the works. The company, he said, recently undertook a study to identify areas of improvement. 

The state's report concluded the plant needed maintenance upgrades to its odor neutralizing system. Some initial changes to that system, Marr said, were made in July.

"We agree that we need to take additional measures and, in fact, we already have some of those measures in hand," he said. "The (AG) letter obviously is not what we want. But by the same token, we recognize we're not doing well. What I want to do is fix the problem and be a good neighbor."

Marr said the odor is caused by decomposing food in the garbage processed at the plant. Decomposing food produces hydrogen sulfide — a gas that smells like rotten eggs.

"It’s a nuisance odor, but it's not harmful," Marr said. 

The state’s air quality division considers hydrogen sulfide to be a toxic air contaminant only if it exceeds certain thresholds. The state, however, says it doesn't have adequate equipment or resources to conduct regular ambient air monitoring of hydrogen sulfide or other pollutants it considers toxic.

The stench has long troubled the neighborhood near Interstates 75 and 94, spurred lawsuits and prompted a group this spring to lobby for its closure, saying the site is disrupting their quality of life. 

“It’s very offensive,” said Cora Ross, 69, a lifelong Detroiter who lives in a townhome near the plant. “It’s been going on a long time.”

Cora Ross, 69, of Detroit, lives across I-75 from Detroit Renewable Energy. She talks about the odor issues she has had with the plant.

Since the assessment began on June 5, 2016, the DEQ's Air Quality Division logged about 200 odor complaints about the plant from that time through the rest of that year. Of those, about 88 percent were attributed to the plant. 

Approximately 200 odor complaints were then filed in 2017. In those instances, about 90 percent were traced to the facility. The DEQ received about 75 complaints as of June 15 this year — 86 percent tied to the plant, the July 31 letter to the company's attorney notes. 

Detroit Renewable Energy came under new ownership in December when New York-based Basalt Infrastructure Partners took over as the majority partner and New Jersey-based DCO Energy, a minority partner, took over its operations. The new ownership declined to release the financial terms of the sale.

The plant, originally built and operated by the city of Detroit, is regarded by state officials as the largest municipal solid waste incinerator in Michigan. 

This spring, Breathe Free Detroit — a grassroots campaign fighting to get the plant closed — collected 15,000 signatures in a petition calling for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to shutter the plant.

The facility receives more than 3,000 tons of garbage every day from Metro Detroit communities and burns it.

Exterior of Detroit Renewable Energy in Detroit.


In the last year, about 65 percent of the garbage it processed came from the city of Detroit, Marr said. The rest was trucked in from surrounding communities in Wayne and Macomb counties, including the Grosse Pointes, Warren and Livonia.

The company is first trying to change the image of the facility that’s long been regarded as a nuisance.

“One of the main things is to try to change the perception that we’re an incinerator because we’re not,” Marr said. 

Marr said the plant is a “true renewable energy facility” because it recovers heat from the burning process, uses it in boilers and makes steam to power a turbine that generates enough electricity to power 60,000 homes in the city. The facility has a power purchase agreement with DTE Energy Co.

The balance of the steam from the plant's boilers goes into the city’s steam network, supplying it to about 100 downtown buildings — including the Renaissance Center, Cobo Center and the Gem Theatre — providing them with heat to keep the buildings warm in the winter. 

When the plant's new ownership stepped in, it assumed responsibility for all permits as well as outstanding judgments and orders.

Under the 2014 consent judgment, the company must meet multiple milestones and was asked to “re-engineer the facility,” adding a new air duct system to route odors into the incinerator for “destruction.” The consent judgment deals solely with odors.

A separate consent order from last year is related to the plant's emission violations, said Todd Zynda, an inspector for the plant and a senior environmental engineer with the DEQ.

The June 7, 2017, order had the company paying out $149,000 related to multiple emission violations from 2015 and 2016.

The consent order was put in place because the facility exceeded the permitted emission limits for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter from one or more of the three boilers operating at the facility, the DEQ has noted. 

Under the order, the company has to meet the emission standards outlined in its permits to avoid penalties. It's paid $3,000 in emissions fines since the order went into place, according to DEQ data.

On Friday, the state fined Detroit Renewable Energy another $55,000 for more recent violations. 

In the past 14 months, 14 to 15 violation notices have been issued to the plant over concerns involving emissions, reporting or processing. 

For each violation, the company is afforded an opportunity to respond. If it can show the violation did not occur, it becomes a non-violation, Marr noted.

The consent judgment resolved 25 violation notices received by the plant over a three-year period.

But in the last 14 months alone, the DEQ has issued about 16 violation notices for odor, said Jeff Korniski, assistant district supervisor of the DEQ's Air Quality Division office in Detroit.

“We’ve uncovered more violations in the last few years than previously,” said Korniski, noting the increase could be tied to population growth and development in the city’s Midtown neighborhood as well as increased awareness of the facility.

Violations in the last year include the plant's failure to complete stack testing within the required time period and several instances of odors that reportedly spread to nearby neighborhoods. 

“If we feel that the odors are continuing and the issue is not resolved, we can request additional control measures,” Korniski said in reference to the July 31 letter sent to the plant. “This letter documents that we don’t believe the control measures have been sufficient."

The site's prior ownership paid a $350,000 fine for past odor violations under the judgment and was subject to fines of up to $5,000 per day for future violations of the Michigan Air Pollution Control law. 

The company paid $140,000 for odor violations in 2016 and 2017, according to the DEQ.

Earlier this year, Detroit Renewable Energy hired an independent firm, Odor Science & Engineering, to conduct an analysis of the plant’s operations and measure air being exhausted from the buildings to identify the sources of the odor.

The plant is also increasing the time it spends surveying neighborhoods for odors from three times a week to daily. 

Plant Manager Robert Suida has been with the company since before it changed hands and contends much more is being done today to interact with the public.

"I think there was a closed-minded approach," he said. "We're the new ownership; we want to be transparent and say, 'We know there were some violations. They’re not acceptable. We’re going to do our best.’”

Organizers from Breathe Free Detroit view the plant's issues as a case of environmental injustice. 

Nick Leonard, staff attorney for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said it's unfair that the plant burns trash from other communities yet Detroit residents have to suffer the impact. 

A report authored by Breathe Free Detroit estimated that about 21,927 people live near the plant. Of that population, 76 percent are people of color, and 71 percent are low-income.

The report notes that Detroit Renewable Energy has exceeded emissions limits more than 750 times since 2013. Not all of the emissions resulted in violation notices. 

Leonard contends state environmental officials have not been aggressive about enforcing state and federal regulations. 

"Low-income communities of color are disproportionately subjected to environmental risks," Leonard told The Detroit News. "This is a pattern, and it’s one that Breathe Free Detroit is trying to reverse with this facility in particular." 

Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield represents the council district where the plant is located and said she's also concerned about its impact on neighbors. Sheffield said "it's good to hear" that the DEQ is seeking additional odor control measures. 

"I am concerned about the incinerator and the concerns we consistently hear from the community," she said. "I don't live too far from it. I know there is a problem."

The council, she said, will have the option to renew the city's contract with the facility in the next couple of years and determine whether Detroit still wants to send its trash there. Sheffield said she intends to meet with the new leadership of the plant and her office is working with the DEQ to arrange a public meeting in the fall.

The DEQ's Korniski said the state has been vigilant, and it's striving to bring the facility back into compliance. 

“We evaluate the complaints seriously, and we make every effort to conduct our investigations in a prompt, correct manner,” he said. 

In regard to the Breathe Free Detroit petition, the DEQ's Detroit office did not receive copies, and it doesn't have jurisdiction over zoning or the authority to shut down a facility apart from “very extreme circumstances,” he said.

The consent judgment over odor concerns will remain in place until all issues are resolved, Korniski added.

Dustin Erlenbeck, 34, moved into a rental home on East Kirby less than a mile west of the plant earlier this summer and already has experienced foul smells and loud noises from the plant. 

“I would have liked to have been warned about it," he said. “We’re going to live here for quite a long time."

Despite the concerns, Marr said he believes it's possible for waste plants and residential areas to co-exist in the same part of town.

The plant creates useful energy and is willing to make investments to control the odors. It also employs 130 unionized workers, primarily from Wayne County. More than 50, he said, are Detroit residents. 

“We’re an asset to the city," he said. "We’re not a liability."