Plans for Detroit's largest incinerator would change east side neighborhood

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Owners of a shuttered waste incinerator on the east side are in talks with the city over a plan to raze the facility as soon as this summer.

Todd Grzech, CEO of Detroit Thermal, told The News on Wednesday that the company, which holds a 14-year lease of the city-owned site on Russell Street, is contemplating a plan to end the lease early, and as a component, embark on what he expects will be a two-year teardown process of the incinerator.

"We are looking at the beginning of demolition of that facility in a very short period of time. That would cover taking basically everything down to the ground," he said. "If people (in the neighborhood) see it physically coming down, it'll get them to believe it. That's the key."

The controversial waste incinerator in Detroit permanently shut down in 2019.

Grzech shared the Delaware-based company's intentions for the site on the same day state regulators announced a consent judgment that requires incinerator operator Detroit Renewable Power to pay $200,000 in fines and bans the burning of trash at a site that's long been a source of odor complaints and air quality violations. 

The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced Wednesday that the agreement ends the facility's ability to burn trash, eliminating one of the main concerns associated with the site, which also has been cited over its management of waste. The facility near Interstates 94 and 75 has a long history of emissions violations.

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

The deal signed on Jan. 27 voids Detroit Renewable Power's current air permits and requires that the facility permanently shut down three boilers. 

"By requiring air permits to be voided, trash burning cannot legally be done," EGLE noted in a news release. "To start up again in the future, the facility must apply for a new air permit which would undergo a full evaluation under the applicable state and federal air quality rules, regulations, and standards."

The incinerator, which permanently shut down in the spring of 2019, was also regarded as one of the nation's largest. Its private owners said the plant was too old and costly to keep open.

The facility for years generated complaints of foul odors and emission violations.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said he doesn't want the waste-to-energy plant open again. Detroit Renewable Energy bought the facility in 2017, but the city still owns the land. Detroit Renewable Energy is the holding company for Detroit Renewable Power, which also is known as Michigan Waste Energy. The company also owns Detroit Thermal, a distribution network of steam under the city that has remained in operation.

City spokesman John Roach said Detroit "Strongly supports EGLE's action in permanently ending trash burning at the incinerator."

"We expected that result and have a city team working on potential long-term uses for the property," he added. 

Detroit Renewable Energy paid $200 million for the facility and invested an estimated $23 million to upgrade it. The lease of the facility was to run through 2035. 

Grzech said the company obtained an estimate just after the facility was shut down that pegged the demolition cost at between $2 million and $3 million.

The agreement notes that by settling the action, Detroit Renewable Power does not admit to any violation of the law or regulations. 

In the year before the facility closed about 65% of the garbage 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 site has also served as a solid waste transfer facility. The agreement allows that to continue on a limited and temporary basis but ensures there's an enforceable timeline for the facility to apply for and receive required permits and licenses or fully stop operations, the state said.

"This has been allowed to meet the City’s ongoing waste needs until the end of 2021," EGLE noted.

The facility was able to take up to 5,000 tons per day when it was in operation. The transfer station is taking in about 1,000 tons per day — or about 20% of the capacity handled there in the past, Grzech noted.

A permit would be required if the company intends to operate the site as a transfer station long-term. 

"We're looking at the best future use of the property, which could include leaving a portion of the facility in place to serve as a transfer facility," he said. 

EGLE staff has access to the site for inspections to evaluate compliance and investigate complaints. 

"Our goal since we got here is to be a good neighbor," said Grzech, noting new owners stepped in during 2018. "We have no intentions of making any further power facility there out of that property."