State must hold Detroit incinerator accountable

By Ken Coleman

Marvin Gaye’s seminal recording “What’s going on” was released 47 years ago this spring. On one of its tracks, “Mercy, mercy me,” he lamented:

“Whoa, ah, mercy, mercy me. Oh things ain't what they used to be, no no. Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east.”

Unfortunately, Gaye’s words still ring true today.

Located at 5700 Russell, Detroit Renewable Power (DRP) operates a formidable solid waste incinerator in the heart of the city that has exceeded pollution emissions standards more than 750 times during the last five years, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) records show.

I live about two miles from the site. My commute to and from work each day involves enduring the incinerator’s horrible smell. That’s why I applaud the coalition of community residents who two weeks ago delivered 15,000 signatures to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's office. With passion and power, they demand that the city shut down Detroit Renewable Power's trash incinerator.

Here are a set of facts offered by Breathe Free Detroit, a community and grassroots-led campaign fighting to shut down the Detroit incinerator. It partners include The Ecology Center, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and East Michigan Environmental Action Council:

  • Each day the incinerator burns 3,300 tons of trash from homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses. It pollutes the air with toxic ash, contributing to climate change.
  • DRP violated the federal Clean Air Act an astounding 446 times in 2015 and 2016. Penalties included failure to monitor sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxides, exceeding allowed limits of carbon monoxide emissions, and failure to effectively capture particulate matter.
  • Detroit pays $25 per ton, about 66% more than other cities to send its trash to the incinerator. Pollution from the facility costs $2.6 million in health costs each year.
  • Trash burned at DRP comes from cities in 10 Michigan counties (Wayne, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, Washtenaw, Bay, Genesee, Ingham, Kent, and Livingston. It also comes from Illinois and Ohio as well as Canada.
  • Nearly 22,000 people live within a 1½-mile radius of the incinerator.
  • 76,681 children live within 5 miles of the incinerator.
  • About 87 percent of residents within one mile are persons of color; 60 percent live below the federal poverty line, with 20 percent unemployment.
  • Thirteen schools operate within that radius. One of them, Golightly Educational Center, an elementary and middle school, is only a couple of blocks away.
(File 2014) A steady stream of garbage trucks roll in and out of the incinerator, run by Michigan Waste Energy Inc. and Detroit Renewable Power LLC, in Detroit, Michigan on October 21, 2014.

We deserve better. I doubt that the facility could operate in Oakland or Macomb counties.

To be fair, MDEQ, in a negotiation with Detroit Renewable Power and the Michigan attorney general's office, agreed last year to a consent order. It cited DRP for eight pollution incidents from 2015 and 2016. But the total penalty was a paltry $149,000.

However, our state attorney general’s office hasn’t done enough on this front and should stand up for everyday people. Simply put, government must do more to protect its residents.

Ken Coleman is a Detroit author and historian.