All mucked up

For the past few months, Lisa Goldstein has been studying a proposal to turn human waste into fertilizer. As director of the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Goldstein is trying to weigh the pros and cons of a plan that could have a significant impact on her community.

Is it better to let the city’s aging waste water treatment plant continue to burn sewage sludge — that is, the excrement and other material remaining after as much water as possible has been drained from the waste flushed down southeast Michigan’s toilets and dumped into its drains — in its towering incinerators? Or should a new facility under private ownership be built to turn excrement into fertilizer in a process that also involves incineration?

At this point, says Goldstein, “We don’t have enough information to take a position. We just have more and more questions.”

It’s a complicated and controversial issue.

Synagro Technologies, a conglomerate based in Houston proposes building a sludge conversion plant at the old Detroit Coke Corp. site on West Jefferson along the river near Zug Island in southwest Detroit’s Del Ray neighborhood. Until last year, a company known as Minergy had planned to use that site for a facility that would turn sludge from the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant into glass aggregate used in such products as ceramic tiles, roofing shingles and asphalt. That project died last summer.

Synagro then entered into an agreement to purchase Minergy. That sale, however, is contingent upon the city approving technology and contract modifications that would allow Synagro to produce fertilizer instead of glass aggregate.

Metro Times was unable to obtain comment from Synagro regarding its Detroit plant and the concerns being raised.

Although the plan has been discussed since last year, Victor Mercado, director of Detroit’s Department of Water and Sewerage, says a detailed proposal arrived at his office just a few weeks ago and that he has not yet examined it. He did, however, tour a Bronx facility similar to the one being proposed for Detroit and came away impressed. Mercado says odor at the Bronx facility was minimal and that the plant received good marks from local environmental regulators.

Neighbors of the plant tell a different story.

When the Honolulu, Hawaii, City Council considered a similar proposal last year, a coalition of New York environmental and community groups urged it to beware of the promises being made by Synagro. In written testimony, the coalition alleged:

“The story of NYOFCO (New York Organic Fertilizer Company) and its parent company, Synagro, is the story of a company without concern for our health and quality of life. …” Coalition members alleged that “stench” could be smelled as far as two miles away from the Bronx plant.

The testimony went on to allege a history of poor compliance with existing permits, insufficient air pollution testing and “insulting” response to community concerns. The environmentalists called the Bronx facility a “dire hazard.”

Last month, after a long delay, Honolulu approved a compromise plan allowing the construction of the plant there to proceed. The go-ahead came after Honolulu got assurances that independent testing would be conducted to ensure that fertilizer pellets produced there would pose no risk.

Jaime Rivera, director of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, says he places little faith in promises made by the company. Asked to describe the smell emitted by the plant during warm weather, he replies, “Can I be blunt? It smells like a mix of shit and more shit.”

In September, a silo at the facility containing fertilizer pellets made of human excrement exploded, sending an “unpleasant wave of burnt fecal order” through that section of the Bronx, according to a report in The New York Post.

Another issue facing the proposed Synagro facility in Detroit is whether it must be approved by City Council. Mercado says that, although the question requires study, it is possible that construction of the plant could proceed under the previous contract with Minergy. City Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr., for one, opposes any attempt to move ahead with the project without first having council review it.

“That to me is not acceptable,” says Cockrel. “The council wouldn’t be doing its due diligence if it allowed that to happen.”

He points out that Synagro is a different company wanting to produce fertilizer, not glass aggregate.

“There is enough significant difference that this needs to be looked at again, not just by the council but also by the community,” Cockrel says.

The initial Minergy proposal, which eventually gained council’s approval, was hotly debated. That body’s Research and Analysis Division last week bolstered Cockrel’s position that the new plan must come before council. In their report, analysts note, however, that it’s possible “that the Mayor may choose to exercise his authority as Special Administrator of the Water and Sewerage Department to approve the contract with Synagro, citing the need to dispose of sludge more efficiently and to meet environmental requirements.”

Mercado says nothing will be determined until he has a chance to review the proposal in-depth.

Also at issue is a debate concerning the overall safety of turning sewage into fertilizer. This is particularly true of sludge obtained from highly industrialized areas such as Detroit, where a variety of pollutants, especially toxic heavy metals, can find their way into the waste stream.

David Lewis, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who says he was fired after raising concerns in an article he wrote for the magazine Nature, contends that “potential long term effects of land applied sewage sludge on public health and the environment need to be better researched before any type of sludge can be promoted as ‘safe’ for public health and the environment in the long run.”

But when Goldstein and others look at the eerie yellow smoke belching from the stacks at the waste water treatment plant, and considers the concerns the status quo is generating in her community, the question she continues to ask is not which approach is good for the environment, but rather which will be least harmful.

It is a pressing question.

According to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality report, “Some of the most toxic compounds known to science” can be found pouring from those smokestacks.

“It’s a huge dilemma,” she says. “It’s a dilemma most people don’t think about.”


Detroit City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the Synagro proposal for 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26, at the South Rademacher Recreation Center, 6501 South St.

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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