Ill wind 

Mattie Posey looks out her window and gnashes her teeth. The flea-market saleswoman used to grow greens and beans in her downtown Detroit yard and says she can’t anymore. But that’s not all. It’s the air that has Posey up in arms as she watches smoke billow from the nation’s largest trash incinerator, located five blocks from her home.

Posey resents the hulking machine and the tiny amounts of toxic metals, chemicals and particles it belches into the air as it burns every scrap, bottle, can and leftover piece of food Detroiters throw away.

“We’re choking on it,” says Posey, who’s lived by the site of the incinerator, 5700 Russell St., near the city cultural center, for more than 20 years. “It’s the smell. It covers the air. I can taste it. It’s not a pleasant taste.

“And I can’t grow vegetables in the back yard, because I get a bitter taste from them. I had to give it up. I couldn’t eat them.”

Unpalatable vegetables aren’t the only thing Posey, 65, blames on the incinerator. The longtime smoker has lung cancer, and says the incinerator, as well as cigarettes, helped cause her disease.

“Everyone else in Detroit is smoking too. They’re smoking smog.”

Posey’s analogy is ironic. Tobacco giant Philip Morris bought a majority ownership in the incinerator from Detroit in 1991. The city rents the incinerator while paying off $600 million in debt on it, resulting in staggering prices for city residents to dispose of trash — more than triple the national average.

Regardless of ownership or cost, Posey wants the incinerator shut down. And she’s not alone.

As the state prepares to grant the 13-year-old Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility a five-year operating permit, a coalition is forming to fight it. The foes have the support of Wayne County Commissioner Jewel Ware and state Rep. Mary Waters, D-Detroit, as well as a host of environmentalists.

The group points to studies that say the area around the incinerator has the highest asthma and blood-lead levels in Detroit, though there is no evidence linking disease rates to the trash burner. They rage that Detroit requires all city garbage to fuel the incinerator’s steam and electricity production, thereby preventing a viable recycling program. Nationwide, Americans recycle 30 percent of their waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and cities such as San Jose, Calif., reduced waste streams by as much as 50 percent in the 1990s by recycling and composting. Detroit recycles 7 percent of its waste, and composts less than 1 percent of tree and yard clippings.

Residents like Ralph Franklin, an artist and teacher, lament that while the incinerator’s emissions are below allowed limits, the cumulative effect of toxins released, coupled with auto exhaust, results in air unfit to breathe.

“I think it’s a huge pollutant,” Franklin says.

Every day as the incinerator burns trash at temperatures up to 2,300 degrees, it emits tiny amounts of dioxins, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, acid gases, particulate matter and a panoply of volatile organic and hazardous compounds, all within allowed limits, for a total of 1,800 tons of pollutants emitted each year. The furnaces create steam that’s used to heat downtown buildings and generate electricity used by Detroit Edison.

The incinerator’s recent self-testing records show most emissions are well below legal limits, but it consistently exceeds the limit for releasing carbon monoxide and emits 1,450 tons of nitrogen oxide a year. In October 2000, it exceeded the limit for emitting dioxin and furan, known carcinogens created by burning plastics. The facility ranks among the most polluting in Michigan, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

All this causes residents to worry.

“The kids can see the incinerator from their school yard. They call it the monster,” says Dominican Sister Joan Baustian, a nun who lives and works at Our Lady of the Rosary church on Woodward at Interstate 94, blocks from the incinerator. “I want to help shut the monster down.”

When it was built in 1986, the incinerator was Detroit’s costliest-ever public works project. The city issued $440 million in bonds and in 1989, the facility began burning trash.

At the time, the incinerator drew the ire of environmentalists worldwide, some of whom descended on Detroit to protest. The province of Ontario sued. Greenpeace activists swung from construction cranes. Dozens of protesters were arrested, but construction moved forward.

Since then, the city-created authority that manages the incinerator has cloaked it in a veil of secrecy, preventing even City Council from knowing about its most basic finances and functions.

And what is little known about the incinerator could prove its eventual downfall, for it consumes money — as well as trash — like a starving goat.

Detroit faces a $75 million budget deficit and its taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the gargantuan trash crematorium since construction began. By 2009, when bonds are paid off, Detroiters will have spent $1 billion on the machine, not including operating costs.

This year, the incinerator requested $72 million from the city: $62 million to pay down construction debts and $10 million for operations. Records show the incinerator’s annual operating costs fluctuate from $8 million to $15 million. And the price tag doesn’t include what Detroit pays to pick up residents’ trash.

The expense means Detroit will pay about $120 per ton to burn its garbage this year, compared to the national average of $34 per ton to dispose of waste in landfills. In southeast Michigan, there’s a glut of landfill space, with per-ton disposal costs averaging $25. As incinerators go, Detroit’s is still twice as costly as the national average of $57 per ton.

And despite Detroit’s major waste costs, it no longer owns its incinerator. In 1991, facing a financial crisis, the city sold it. Philip Morris, the majority owner, wanted the tax credits that come with owning a steam and electricity generating facility. So, in 2009, after 20 years and a billion dollars in mortgage payments, Detroit taxpayers will have to buy it back.

Or, as the environmentalists and some residents would have it, they won’t.

“One of the things the environmentalists need to factor in is there are those bonds still out, and someone has to pay them,” says Bob Berg, spokesman for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. “It’s not a matter of going in and turning off the lights in the facility and having it go away. You can’t just default on bonds. Some of the people railing against this are the same ones that have been there since day one, and they’re a relatively small group of people, if I’m correct.”

Belly of the beast

It’s 15 degrees on a March Monday but inside the expansive warehouse of Detroit’s incinerator, heat sizzles from a mountain of half-eaten food, discarded junk mail and worn-out clothes.

As a procession of garbage trucks dumps trash into 20-foot-high piles, dozens of birds screech and swarm the mounds to nibble an occasional banana or leftover hamburger festering in the rubble.

Michael Brinker dons his hard hat for a tour of the facility. He knows the operation like the back of his hand. He’s been running it for 13 years.

“I pay the bills, I enforce the contracts,” says Brinker, appointed in succession by mayors Coleman Young, Dennis Archer and Kwame Kilpatrick to direct the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility Authority.

The authority was created by the city in 1986 to oversee the incinerator as a “public body corporate,” as Brinker calls it, like a utility. The authority is a separate legal entity from the city, but Brinker answers to city department heads and to the mayor.

Brinker does a good job of keeping sensitive information about the incinerator under wraps. Brinker and other city officials declined to provide access to many public documents Metro Times wanted to see. Documents on the incinerator’s operations and finances were obtained mainly from other sources. Some of the records show that City Council members such as Mahaffey have attempted for years to get information about the facility — to little avail. Though Philip Morris owns the incinerator, it plays no role in the operations or expenses, according to the documents. Instead, the city pays the authority an average of $70 million a year to cover expenses and debts. In turn, the authority pays Michigan Waste Energy, a subsidiary of New Jersey firm Covanta, to manage, operate and maintain the incinerator.

Although Detroiters paid to build and operate the machine, there are limits to what the public may see. Brinker won’t allow photographers in. He says Covanta “has expressed strong interest in not having the equipment photographed.”

Brinker ignored several requests for the annual Michigan Waste contract amount. Documents suggest the authority plans to pay the firm at least $30 million in the upcoming fiscal year to process an average of 2,800 tons of trash each day.

The incinerator’s three furnaces, built for a more populous Detroit, can burn 4,000 tons daily, making it the largest in America. But it runs far below capacity, and is only allowed to use two boilers at once because of environmental regulations. Brinker says it burns about 2,200 tons a day, seven days a week.

From the warehouse floor, conveyers move the trash through shredders, where 500-horsepower hammers pulverize it into smaller, more burnable shards. Little is left recognizable except, maybe, “a high-quality gym shoe. Those bad boys are indestructible,” says Brinker. The entire process, including the furnaces, is computer monitored by EPA-certified engineers.

Most of the waste comes from Detroit Department of Public Works, but the incinerator expects to bring in $5.8 million this year from private companies, for a total tonnage Brinker wouldn’t reveal. This year, the authority will spend $17 million to send to landfills articles of garbage that can’t be burned, such as pieces of furniture, and the ash created by the burning.

The ash contains particles of whatever’s incinerated in addition to chemicals created in the burning process. Ash emissions sparked public debate and several court cases in the early 1990s after incinerator workers and residents complained of nosebleeds and watery eyes. It’s now treated as toxic material, collected and shipped to a sealed, separate area of a Sumpter County landfill.

Brinker says the incinerator does not separate anything from the trash before it’s burned except metal objects, which are sucked up as they move through a large turning magnetized drum. Clanking noises can be heard as the drum grabs metals, removed because they add to the toxins released by the incinerator. “You wouldn’t believe how much silverware ends up in the trash,” he says.

Brinker grows irritated when asked about recycling. It’s obviously a sensitive subject. The authority operates Detroit’s sole recycling drop-off center, located two blocks from the incinerator on Ferry Street near Chene in an old fruit market. This year, the authority will spend $2.2 million on the center, according to Brinker’s city budget proposal. Taylor Recycling picks up the glass, newspapers, cardboard and plastics dropped off. Brinker won’t say how many tons a year are picked up, noting it’s “incidental.” A manager at Taylor, who wouldn’t give her name, says it is a small amount.

“The markets are so depressed,” Brinker says of recycling. This year, the facility doesn’t plan on making a cent from the sale of recycled metals grabbed by the magnet. In previous years, it was sold as scrap metal, he says. Further, Michigan’s bottle bill gets most of the glass and aluminum cans out of the stream, he says, and as for glass recycling, “there’s no market.”

“It’s a phantom to chase,” he says of recycling.

But J.D. Lindeberg says despite the depressed market, Detroit could make $10 to $20 per ton with a curbside recyling program. Lindeberg’s firm consults cities such as Lansing, Flint, Toledo, Ohio and St. Paul, Minn., about cost efficient waste disposal programs.

“I guarantee that Detroit could spend less,” says Lindeberg. “Right now, Detroit is spending an incredible amount of money to incinerate. The problem is the (government officials) are tied in to paying off these bonds and there’s a political cost to saying, ‘We blew it, we should start again.’”

Brinker says the incinerator is recycling. While the furnaces burn trash, water running in tubes along them turns to steam. Some of the steam runs through a turbine, creating electricity. Each year, the incinerator produces 60 percent of the steam Detroit Edison uses to heat downtown buildings and supplies 1 percent of the utility’s electricity.

“This was brought forth in the early ’70s, it was espoused.

“We’ve demonstrated we’ve achieved compliance with the regulations. This is a clean, safe facility. We do reduce and reuse material. And we’re a self-sufficient operation.”

Well, hardly. Detroiters fork out millions of dollars a year to subsidize the incinerator’s appetite.

Penchant for green

Detroit was in a jam in 1991. The city faced an $88 million deficit, and the state had ordered the incinerator to install pollution-control equipment. The city was struggling to pay its $440 million debt on the incinerator’s construction and couldn’t afford the pollution controls. So Mayor Coleman Young solicited private investors.

Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, bought 70 percent of the incinerator, while another company, Aviation Services, bought 30 percent.

Under the deal, Philip Morris and Aviation Services paid the city $54 million in cash and issued $157 million in bonds for the pollution control equipment, though the city must pay back those bonds plus interest. Every year, the companies pay the city a mortgage and the city pays rent. Over the life of the deal, the lease and mortgage payments will cancel each other out.

For their part, the companies will get an estimated $200 million in pollution tax credits for owning the incinerator from 1991 to 2009. The city couldn’t use the credits, because it doesn’t pay taxes. The federal credits apply to the incinerator because it generates and sells steam and electricity.

“It was a cash opportunity at a very tough time. And it was selling something you couldn’t use,” says Brinker of the tax credits.

As part of the deal, Detroit Edison agreed to continue buying steam and electricity from the incinerator. In 2002-2003, the incinerator is expected to sell $26 million worth of steam and $12.7 million worth of electricity to Edison.

The deal was a good one for Detroit. It helped the city offset its debts and obtain the pollution control equipment.

In 2009, all deals will expire and the incinerator’s debts are scheduled to be paid off.

“In 2009, the city of Detroit is going to own a very reasonably sized power plant that can provide solid waste disposal services,” Brinker says.

Philip Morris will determine how much Detroit must pay to get its incinerator back.

“We will decide what to do with the facility when the appropriate time comes,” says Dave Tovar, spokesman for Philip Morris.

Greens choke

According to, a Web site of the Environmental Defense Fund that ranks polluters nationwide, the incinerator ranks in the 80th percentile for “dirtiest/ worst” facilities in Michigan. It ranks in the 90th percentile nationwide and seventh in Wayne County for nitrogen oxide emissions linked to ozone depletion and acid rain, well below the county’s largest emitter at Ford’s Rouge Plant.

The incinerator’s history of environmental problems began before it was built, when community groups battled unsuccessfully to prevent its construction.

In its early days of operation in 1989, 50 workers walked off the job, complaining of nosebleeds, headaches and watery eyes. Neighbors lodged similar complaints.

In 1990, the state Department of Natural Resources denied the facility an operating permit after tests showed high levels of mercury and dioxins in the emissions and hazardous components in the ash blowing over the city. Documents show that one test found mercury levels in the emissions 190 percent above legal limits. The state shut the facility down for two months until the authority entered a consent agreement, allowing the incinerator to operate under orders to install pollution control equipment.

After the sale of the facility in 1991, scrubbers and a filter system were installed over a five-year period. The equipment and systems collect particles shooting from the furnace before the smoke leaves the stacks. In 1998, the state deemed the facility to be in compliance and terminated the consent order.

Brinker says that since 1994, the facility’s emissions have been well below U.S. EPA limits — standards that didn’t even take effect until 2000.

A Metro Times review of documents shows that all testing at the incinerator is done by the facility itself, with oversight from a third-party contractor. Quarterly tests were submitted to the Wayne County Air Pollution Control division until October 2001, when the county division folded into the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. State officials review the tests for compliance and sometimes witness the tests. Also, the incinerator’s computers provide constant monitoring transmitted simultaneously to the state.

The quarterly reports show the incinerator regularly complies with legal limits except for consistent exceedances in carbon monoxide emission levels.

“Carbon monoxide emissions are also from a car,” says Brinker. “The health threat here is zero. This is a delicate operation.”

The incinerator applied for its first state renewable operating permit in 1996. The federal Clean Air Act of 1990 requires states to issue such permits to major polluters by 2003. The permits are intended to consolidate old and outdated permits and incorporate new pollution regulations.

Lillian Woolley, supervisor of the Air Quality Division of MDEQ, says Michigan left permits for large, controversial facilities such as the incinerator for last. That’s why the permit is coming up now, she says.

The original comment period has been extended several times. Because of petitions from Anna Holden and Ed McArdle of the Sierra Club the state extended the public input period to April 11. Holden and McArdle want more pollution controls and state monitoring.

Woolley says the state is concerned about the incinerator’s bloated emission of dioxin and furan in October 2000, and is working with Brinker and the authority to determine the cause. “The state is concerned with the one (October 2000) incident,” Woolley says. “But for the most part, their compliance record is excellent.”

Fighting for air

Jackie Victor wakes at dawn to care for her 18-month-old daughter, Raphael, and manage her organic bakery in the Cass Corridor. Every week, she hauls the bakery’s recycling to Southfield because she suspects the incinerator’s Ferry Street recycling drop-off center simply feeds the trash machine.

Victor moved to downtown Detroit six years ago with her partner, and they’ve put their heart, soul and savings into the city. When she looks out her window and sees the incinerator, her blood pressure rises.

“We live in such an industrialized city, with one of the worst air-quality levels in the country. A lot of that is out of our control. But this is one tangible place where we can start to clean up our air,” says Victor, who co-owns Avalon International Breads with her partner, Ann Perrault. “Why aren’t we recycling? Why are we acting like this is normal?”

Victor is leading a growing coalition with hopes of shuttering the incinerator. Along with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, the Michigan Environmental Council, the American Lung Association of Michigan, the Sierra Club and a host of residents and researchers, the group is seizing the opportunity created by the incinerator’s new state permit application to raise awareness.

Victor says in her opinion, meeting U.S. EPA standards is “irrelevant,” because the incinerator is still emitting tons of toxins into an already polluted downtown air.

“We don’t have a choice in the matter. If we’re going to stay in the neighborhood, in this city, we have an absolute obligation to our baby to shut this thing down,” says Victor. “Economically, it’s a boondoggle. Environmentally and healthwise, it’s a disaster. I couldn’t imagine this in the middle of Bloomfield Hills or Ann Arbor.”

State Rep. Mary Waters says she wants to assist.

“I don’t live far from here,” says Waters. “You do start to wonder. I have asthma problems myself.”

Brenda Platt, recycling director at Washington, D.C.’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has helped community groups fight incinerators for 20 years.

She explains that in the 1970s, incinerators were heralded as the new technology, the “magic black box” that would make landfills and trash go away. In the 1980s, there was a “rush to burn” in the United States as people worried that fuel costs of hauling to landfills were rising and land space was diminishing. But environmentalists were always against the burning machines, she says, and in the 1990s found considerable success preventing them from coming online.

From 1985 to 1994, 280 plans to build incinerators across the country were canceled because of community protest, says Platt. In the United Kingdom, 23 of 28 incinerators closed because of European Union environmental rules enacted in 1996, she says.

Financial arguments helped the fight, she says.

“Incineration is almost always the most expensive waste disposal option,” she says. “And I think they are the most polluting. Because while landfills are by no means environmentally benign, with them you aren’t putting everything imaginable into a burning machine that undergoes chemical reactions that creates acid gases and toxins that didn’t exist in the waste to begin with.

“If you redirect the millions of dollars you put into incineration to alternatives, you can have a dynamite alternative.”

Arnold Reitze, professor of air quality and environmental law at the George Washington University Law School, says incinerators are neither good nor bad.

“They can be run well so they are fairly clean, or they can be run poorly and be fairly dirty. But it does produce air pollution. And if you live under the plume, you may not be jumping with joy.”

Brad van Guilder of Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center has been working since last summer on a proposal for Detroit to close the incinerator in favor of a landfill/recycling program. He says Ann Arbor makes $9 per ton on recycling and has reduced its waste by more than 50 percent since 1996. Meanwhile, Detroit recycles less than 10 percent.

“That’s a recycling program for the city the size of Detroit? That’s insane,” says van Guilder.

But Kilpatrick’s spokesman Bob Berg says it’s in Detroit’s best interest to keep its trash burner once it’s paid off. By then, the city’s investment in the incinerator will be considerable.

“This is by far the cleanest incinerator in the country, and it meets all the requirements. This is not Ann Arbor. You’ve got to have an effective way to get rid of trash.” Things are different in Detroit, Berg says. “Everybody should recycle more. If you’re living on the edge, if economically you’re trying to make ends meet, recycling your Wheaties box isn’t going to be as high a priority.”

And what does Kilpatrick think?

“The mayor has outlined his three major priorities: the police department, mayor’s time and a citywide emergency cleanup. This is a facility that was built when he was in high school. It’s running just fine. If you’re looking at him as wanting to shut down the incinerator, well, right now the city’s got more pressing needs.”

A meeting of the coalition to fight the incinerator is scheduled for Saturday, April 6. For more information, call Michelle Shewmaker at Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice at 313-821-1064.

Read related stories in this edition: The incinerator facility's emission statement for the year 2000; and how to find Detroit's recycling center (urban legend says drop-offs are sent straight to the trash incinerator, which operates the center).

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to

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