Battle of the burn

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The war's far from over, but the forces that want to see Detroit's trash incinerator snuffed won an important battle last week when the City Council, on a 6-2 vote, passed a resolution calling for the burner to close, with landfills and recycling to take its place.

Technically, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, a quasi-governmental entity, runs the incinerator — which burns about 800,000 tons of trash a year, creating electricity and steam in the process. In reality, with the GDRRA board filled with Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's appointees, it is the Big Guy who calls the shots on trash disposal in Motown.

At least that's the way it's been up until now. But the council has a grip on the purse strings. Last year GDRRA received nearly $90 million in city funds in the form of what's known as "tipping fees" to pay for all that garbage burning. If council plays hardball, there won't be money to pay for disposal.

Council member JoAnn Watson has led the charge to make the switch. With big help from the area's leading environmentalists, she was able to convince a majority of her council colleagues to pass a resolution notifying the Kilpatrick administration that they would only support a budget that provides for a "transition from incineration to materials recovery and landfilling, including a pilot curbside recycling program."

The administration seems to have shrugged off the resolution, saying that it is nonbinding. Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams, appointed by Kilpatrick to head the GDRRA board, tells News Hits that the decision-making process is still under way.

"We are continuing to evaluate what we need to do," he says.

But time is growing short. Despite a July 1 deadline to decide whether to keep using the incinerator beyond mid-2009 (when the facility is paid off and the current lease expires) or to move toward a combination of landfilling and recycling, GDRRA is still in the process of preparing to determine exactly how much either option will cost.

Adams says he's not interested in trying to get that deadline extended. He adds, however, that whatever choice is made — burning or landfilling — GDRRA and the administration are committed to increasing the amount of Detroit trash that gets recycled. Watson and her allies in the environmental movement are skeptical, pointing out that some of the highest-value recycling materials — namely paper and plastics — are also the incinerator's most efficient fuel.

Council member Sheila Cockrel, who cast one of two votes against the resolution, says that's not an indication she's necessarily opposed to the majority's plan, but rather that she needs to see more detailed financial information before she's convinced.

Watson and her allies will have the opportunity to do that this week during budget hearings. One thing Watson and her allies have going for them, though, is that they are taking on an administration that's had its political clout significantly weakened by the text-message scandal embroiling the mayor. Any attempt to win over council members is going to be a tough sell.

As Cockrel notes, "The process has been made harder and harder because trust between the executive and legislative branches has been breeched in such a profound and fundamental way."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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