Detroit's controversial incinerator permanently shut down

The Detroit Renewable Power facility near Interstates 94 and 75 was too old and that the cost of eliminating odor issues was too high, Todd Grzech, CEO of Detroit Renewable Energy, said in 2019.

Detroit — One of the nation's largest waste incinerators that for years generated complaints of foul odors and emission violations was permanently shut Wednesday by its private owner who said the trash-burning plant was too old and costly to keep open. 

The Detroit Renewable Power facility on the city's east side near Interstates 94 and 75 ended its trash-burning operations Wednesday afternoon, said Todd Grzech CEO of Detroit Renewable Energy, the holding company for the waste-to-energy plant. The company bought the facility for $200 million two years ago and invested an estimated $23 million to upgrade it.

The closure impacts 150 workers at the facility, which is on property that is city-owned.

"There will be no smell this summer," Grzech said Wednesday.

"This facility has traditionally been the source of a lot of complaints around odors, around noise, nuisance. We thought we could get rid of these items and serve our customers efficiently."

But even after the $23 million upgrades, the facility wasn't performing up to the firm's satisfaction, he said.

"There is just not enough money out there to do it," Grzech said.

The 3,000 tons of daily trash will now be delivered to area landfills, Grzech said. And the energy provided from the facility will now be handled by the Detroit Thermal natural-gas facility near Ford Field. That facility is also owned by Detroit Renewable Energy.

The incinerator, originally built and operated by the city of Detroit, is one of the largest municipal solid waste facilities in the nation, burning garbage into energy for city customers.

Trash stopped burning at the facility on Wednesday. A "nominal amount" of trash remains at the site and the facility will still store deliveries for several weeks. But within the next 60 days, that remaining trash will be transferred to another site, Grzech said. 

The facility's stench has long vexed its surrounding neighborhood, spurring lawsuits and prompting groups to lobby for its closure, arguing the site is disrupting their quality of life. 

Waste is unloaded from trucks as it starts the process at Detroit Renewable Energy. The incinerator receives more than 3,000 tons of garbage daily.

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.

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

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he doesn't want the waste-to-energy plant open again.  Detroit Renewable Energy bought the facility, but the city still owns the land and now the facility reverts back to the city. 

The city "has been pushing Detroit Renewable Energy to address neighborhood concerns about the incinerator for nearly a year. Now that the company has decided to close the incinerator, the city will soon have the ability to influence the future use of this property," Mayor Mike Duggan's Twitter account tweeted after news broke of the decision.

"As far as future use of this site, it is my strong preference that this site never again be used as a waste incinerator. We will be pursuing our legal options to make sure this remains the case."

The city’s contract for processing and disposal remains with Detroit Renewable Power, which still will be responsible for disposing the city’s trash under its contract that expires in October 2021. The city has contracts with Toronto-based GFL Environmental Inc. and Florida-based Advanced Disposal to collect household solid waste.

Duggan said the city and Detroit At Work will work with the laid-off employees to find new jobs. 

The facility’s workers were blindsidedby the news, said Dan McKernan, spokesman for Operating Engineers Local 324, which represents the workers. The company informed employees of the layoffs about 24 hours in advance of the news breaking; some were told by email.

“What is getting lost in the shuffle is that 150 very skilled workers, many of whom are Detroit residents, lost their jobs with no notice,” McKernan said. “It certainly seems pre-emptive for politicians to be dancing on the graves of those jobs right now.”

He said employees were under the impression efforts to respond to community and state regulatory concerns were making progress. In August, Detroit Renewable Power employees had worked with the company to create videos that showed what the facility does and how it is an asset to the city as a power producer.

“It seems like a short-sighted decision by the company,” McKernan said. “It’s a valuable resource for the Metro Detroit area. It is renewable energy that we’re talking about for so many buildings in downtown Detroit and putting power on the grid for the city of Detroit.”

The incinerator has been under two consent agreements with the state and has exceeded pollution emissions standards more than 750 times over the last five years, according to a recent report by a campaign of environmentalists and community members fighting to get the plant closed.

A waste vehicle heads out after dumping its material at Detroit Renewable Energy in Detroit on July 12, 2018.

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center gave the owners a required 60-day notice in late January that they planned to sue over the emission violations under the Clean Air Act.

The group’s executive director, Nick Leonard, said he was “very excited” about the closure.

“It was a huge issue in terms of the environmental impact on residents and their health,” Leonard said. “We thought the facility was having problems given its age. They were having hundreds of (emission) violations every year.”

And last summer, the state Attorney General's office told the owners the facility needed upgrades to its odor control systems before it could be released from a 2014 consent judgment.

In 2018, company officials told The Detroit News that about 65 percent of the garbage it processed came from the city of Detroit. The rest was trucked in from surrounding communities in Wayne and Macomb counties, including the Grosse Pointes, Warren and Livonia.

The plant recovered heat from its burning process, used it in boilers and made steam to power a turbine that generated enough electricity to power 60,000 homes in the city. The balance of the steam from the plant's boilers went 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.

Detroit Thermal, meanwhile, generates steam used for heating and cooling commercial offices, medical facilities, schools, manufacturing sites, governmental buildings, Cobo Center and hotels.

Moving from generating power with the incinerator to a natural gas facility did not require any regulatory action, said Nick Assendelft, spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission.

“If the costs charged to customers were to change as a result of the switch,” he said, “Detroit Thermal would have to seek approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission to adjust its rates.”

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said the city was notified of the closure on Thursday and immediately sought a temporary solution. It secured an agreement with Pine Tree Acres Landfill in Lenox Township.

“We have an agreement with Pine Tree Acres for the same price as we paid for the Detroit incinerator, but there will be an additional cost because we’re not going a few miles to Detroit. Now we’re driving 28 miles,” Fouts said. “The important thing is we established permanent alternatives, and there won’t be garbage piling up in Warren and no interruptions or missed pickups for residents.”

But Fouts said the closure should be “a wake-up call for other communities.”

“You can not assume that wherever you taking trash has its assurance,” he said. “We have to find a solution to our throwaway products and products that are not biodegradable, which the majority of our trash now isn’t."

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the "decision to shut down this incinerator is expected to benefit air quality in the city of Detroit."

"MDEQ staff have aggressively pursued a number of enforcement actions against DRP for improper operations over the past several years and have issued DRP 18 separate violation notices in the past 24 months alone," DEQ spokesman Scott Dean said.

"It is our understanding that the city of Detroit is already in action to find waste disposal alternatives to the DRP incinerator, and MDEQ stands ready to provide technical support in this effort."

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, whose district includes the incinerator, also said the facility's closure will immediately improve the quality of residents' lives there.

“They will no longer be subject to the foul odor emitted from the facility or the harmful particles released in the atmosphere, which can adversely affect individuals' health,” Sheffield said. “I am encouraged that the dialogue and community input my office facilitated played a role in the permanent closure of the incinerator, which has negatively impacted the quality of life residents near the facility for decades.

"With that said, the loss of jobs and immediate nature of the closure is very disconcerting but unfortunately necessary to protect public health.”

Sheffield said future plans for the site should include what the community deems worthy.

“Absent an environment assessment and subsequent remediation, I am not in a position to suggest what should be done with the property,” she said. “However, I can say that whatever is considered for the land should be done so with significant community input and hopefully replace the jobs lost as a result of the closure.”

Last spring, Breathe Free Detroit — a grassroots campaign that fought to get the plant closed — collected 15,000 signatures in a petition calling for Duggan to shutter it.

The group previously 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.

"Of course the Breathe Free Detroit Campaign welcomes the closure of a polluting facility, and we look forward to a new chapter in Detroit’s movement toward dealing with the challenges that remain for workers, residents and for all Detroiters," the group said Wednesday. "With that said, today is a good day, and we thank the community for standing up to corporate interests and winning."

Andrew Stanford has worked in the area for 20 years and has lived at Culture Gardens Apartments, across Interstate 75 from the incinerator, for four years.

“The noise is loud and it stinks … there are some days that are pretty rough, and it stretches across 75,” said Stanford, 41. “Closing it is better for pollution, and we deserve better oxygen around here."

Kareesa Riggins of Detroit said every day she passes the incinerator to pick her three kids up from the nearby Plymouth Educational Center on East Forest, she worries for their health.

“My kids have bronchitis often, and they all go to school and play outside right next to this incinerator,” said Riggins, 38. “I’ve lived and worked in this area my whole life. There’s not a lot of houses or community. Just churches and schools. I’ve been concerned about smoke stacks from the sewer pipes and health effects on these kids for a long time.

"I feel for the loss in jobs, but at least we won’t have to roll up our windows before getting on the highway.”

No new incinerators have been built in the U.S. in several years, and four others have recently shut down, said Cole Rosengren, senior editor of Waste Dive, an online trade website covering the waste industry.

“Incinerators are facing a lot of opposition across the country,” said Rosengren, in part from environmentalists.

In comparison, they are increasing in Europe and China, he said. They are more popular in areas without a lot of available land or prone to flooding.

Burning trash for energy is still considered preferable to landfills by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rosengren said he believes Michigan’s existing landfills will be able to absorb the additional garbage without much problem. Landfill fees for trucks are cheap in the state compared to others, an indicator that landfills have available capacity, he said.

“Many U.S. incinerators were built in 1980s-1990s when there were concerns about landfill capacity,” he wrote in an email. “Since then, low energy prices (due to natural gas fracking boom, cheap oil etc.) has made it hard for them to stay competitive on that front.

“That means if incinerators aren't cost-competitive with landfills as a means of trash disposal, it can be harder to stay afloat.”

Staff writer Breana Noble contributed.