Sisyphus & the incinerator 

Environmentalists and Detroit City Council re-enact a Greek myth

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Following last week's decision by the Detroit City Council to give $4.1 million in state brownfield tax credits to the owners of Detroit's waste-to-energy incinerator, we here at the Hits decided that an image of Sisyphus — condemned by the Greek gods to forever roll a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again — might be appropriate as a new logo for the broad-based coalition known as Zero Waste Detroit.

Back in April, when the council — appropriately, in our view — voted against turning over taxpayer money to the incinerator's owner, Detroit Renewable Energy, members of the coalition that's been battling to get the city to recycle more of its waste breathed a sigh of relief.

The way ZWD sees it, the facility located on the city's east side at the junction of interstates 75 and 94 is an impediment to recycling. It exists to burn trash, creating steam and electricity in the process. Without enough garbage to burn, it goes out of business. It would also go out of business, say such people as Margaret Weber of Rosedale Recycles, Brad van Guilder of the Ecology Center and Sandra Turner-Handy of the Sierra Club, without continued public subsidies.

As a result of Detroit's steep population decline, its waste stream has been drastically reduced over the more than 20 years the incinerator has been in operation. For much of that time, the city was obligated to make sure the incinerator received enough trash to keep operating. As a result, it provided a subsidy of sorts, allowing suburban and private waste to be burned at rates far below those being paid by the city.

But after 2009, when the city paid off the $1 billion in bonds (including interest) for the construction of the facility and installation of costly air pollution equipment, the obligation to make sure the incinerator keeps burning was removed. (The facility is currently owned by Detroit Renewable Energy, the latest in a line of private owners since the city sold it for $54 million in 1991.)

For a time, it looked as if the city might separate itself completely from the incinerator. But, for reasons we've written about before, that didn't happen. Instead, the Bing administration appointees who sit on the board of the Detroit Resource Recovery Authority — the quasi-public entity responsible for disposal of Detroit's trash — last year locked the city into a long-term deal with the incinerator. They did that even though there is a glut of landfill space available in southeast Michigan.

However, that wasn't enough. And so, Detroit Renewable Power (DRP) sought the council's approval for the $4.1 million in brownfield tax credits earlier this year. 

On the surface, the company's claims that it was entitled to these tax credits didn't appear to make much sense. After all, brownfield tax credits were designed to make it financially feasible for companies to redevelop "contaminated, blighted or functionally obsolete" property. 

Any fair assessment of the situation would seem to indicate that the incinerator was none of these. The owners claimed that the facility was badly neglected by the previous owners (funny how, in all the GDRRA meetings News Hits attended over the years, all we ever heard was how well the facility was managed under the previous owners) and that the tax credit money was needed to provide much-needed upgrades.

But, as some council members repeatedly pointed out, providing upgrades is not the same as cleaning up polluted property.

With the state of Michigan now phasing out brownfield credits, the incinerator's owners came back to council earlier this month to take one last shot at getting this $4.1 million windfall. As before, the only people to speak in favor of the proposal were company executives and rank-and-file employees, who consistently talked about how much better the place is being run under the new ownership.

Opponents, who included environmental activists and residents, flooded the council with pleas not to grant the credits. After all the taxpayer money that has already gone into this facility, they argued, why should even more public money be turned over to a private business that, despite the company's claims to the contrary, is anything but green.

As the group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) noted in its just-released report "Burning Public Money for Dirty Energy":

"Many dirty energy companies, such as 'clean coal,' nuclear, biomass and 'waste-to-energy,' have lobbied policy makers under the guise of 'renewable energy' promising to deliver energy security, jobs and climate mitigation. Their trade associations and lobbyists continue to persuade lawmakers that these toxic and expensive technologies merit support as energy alternatives. ... The incinerator industry is at the fore of this effort."

And so, even though opponents thought they had won this battle in an ongoing war against the incinerator, the boulder that they have been pushing up a hill for more than 20 years rolled back down on them again last week. Councilmembers Gary Brown and Andre Spivey, without explanation, reversed course and joined Saunteel Jenkins, James Tate, and Council President Charles Pugh in voting to grant the tax credits.

Councilmember Ken Cockrel Jr., whose persistent questioning got company representatives to admit that this infusion of tax dollars would result in the creation of no more than 10 permanent jobs, pointed out — before joining JoAnn Watson, Brenda Jones and Kwame Kenyatta in voting no — that it appeared the only reason the company had for seeking the tax break was that it was good for the bottom line.

Once again, the powers behind incineration prevailed. And, yet again, the opponents are back to rolling a boulder uphill.

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