Burning questions about sludge

Oct 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

The Detroit City Council has approved a controversial contract with a company that will treat 50 tons of sludge daily from the Water and Sewerage Department. Last week’s 6-3 vote followed heated debate over the environmental issues, the impact on jobs and the two-day period the council was given to consider the complicated issue.

The 15-year contract is with Detroit Minergy to build a $100 million solid-waste recycling plant on the city’s southwest side. The company is to transport sludge from the waste water treatment facility, which currently incinerates the material and disposes it in land fills. Minergy’s plant is to process the waste into a glass aggregate to be sold rather than dumped in landfills. Technically, company representatives said, they are applying a heat process to the waste, not incinerating it.

City Council President Pro Tem Maryann Mahaffey voted against the Minergy contract. In a written statement, she said that the council did not have critical information before voting.

"We still do not have the complete report of the internal review conducted by the Water and Sewerage Department that led them to the determination that this is the best approach to disposing the waste water treatment sludge." Mahaffey also said the 15-year contract is too long considering rapid changes in environmental technology.

"It is practical and reasonable to assume that an environmentally improved technology will be created in the 15-year length of this contract."

Council member Sheila Cockrel voted in favor of the contract. In a written statement, she said that Minergy uses an environmentally friendly process and is building its plant on a vacant brownfield site. "Now, we have a win-win environmental benefit with brownfield development and recycling replacing wastewater sludge incineration," she wrote. Minergy will build its plant on the old Detroit Coke site, a defunct coal-processing factory, which contaminated the 80-acre area.

John Nagy, who has lived for 45 years in Delray, where the plant will be built, says he supports the project.

"They basically had an open door policy," said Nagy, who visited Minergy’s paper sludge processing plant in Wisconsin to understand how the company would operate in his neighborhood.

"Overall, their operation there is very clean," he said. "I feel fairly comfortable that the operator of the plant has been up front with us. Anything we asked they tried to answer to the best of their ability."

But Jeff Gearhart, campaign director for the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, said he never received information requested since April about the proposed sludge incinerator. "I asked for the air permit application. They never got us that," he said. That information would enable the Ecology Center to determine whether the community would be exposed to mercury and dioxin and the amounts. "In the absence of seeing details about it," said Gearhart, "we can’t support it."

According to Minergy spokesperson David Waymire, the company could not provide the information to Gearhart because it doesn’t exist. "Some information they requested depends on the scope of the plant, the size, and some of that has not been determined by Minergy because we are not sure how much (sludge) we will be getting from the waste water treatment facility," said Waymire.

Gearhart said that Minergy provided the information to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality when it applied for an air permit August 16. Gearhart has requested a copy of the air permit application, but has not yet received it.

According to Angela Brown Wilson, executive assistant to the mayor, not until Sept. 17 did the city and Minergy agree that the company would handle all of the waste water treatment facility’s sludge. She also says that is why the city did not talk to union workers about the issue until last week.

"At that time we didn’t know if we would have any impact on the unions," said Brown Wilson. "When we agreed that they will take all of our sludge and there is no longer a need for the incinerator we knew we needed to talk to the union."

Edward McNeil is the special assistant to the president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). McNeil complained about the city’s failure to inform the union about the contract in a more timely fashion. "The day they made a decision to do something they should have put us on notice," said McNeil. He said he fears that the union will lose 199 full-time positions when the waste water treatment facility incinerator closes. The Minergy plant will employ 30 workers.

However, the administration said while workers could be shifted to other jobs, no one would be laid off as a result of the contract.

Minergy is expected to save the city about $300 million over the 15-year contract period, according to Brown Wilson. The plant is scheduled to begin operating in 2002.