Detroit residents sue incinerator owner over 'noxious' odors

Class-action lawsuit seeks financial awards in excess of $25,000

Jul 29, 2014 at 10:45 am

A class-action lawsuit was filed against the owner of Detroit’s municipal solid waste incinerator Monday, accusing the company of nuisance and gross negligence violations.

The suit follows a Metro Times cover story earlier this month on the growing number of odor complaints from nearby residents since Detroit Renewable Power LLC (DRP) took control of the facility in 2010. The investigation found a spike in citations from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for noncompliance related to odor issues, and showed how the incinerator’s odor is actually the predominant issue for a local enforcement agency. Since late last year, MDEQ ramped up its enforcement and began to craft a consent judgment with DRP that would likely stipulate fines and lay out a timeline for the company to follow to resolve the alleged odor, or face additional penalties, officials said. 

In an email, a spokesperson for DRP says, “Detroit Renewable Power is reviewing the complaint,” but declined further comment.

According to the complaint filed by Detroit-based Liddle & Dubin P.C., “On occasions too numerous to list, Plaintiffs’ property including Plaintiffs’ neighborhood, residences and yards were physically invaded by noxious odors and contaminants … As a direct and proximate result of the Defendant’s negligence in operating and/or maintaining the facility, Plaintiffs’ property has been invaded by noxious odors.”

The eight-page complaint contends that local property values have dropped because of the incinerator’s presence, “and has interfered with Plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their property.” The lawsuit, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court, seeks a financial award in excess of $25,000 and all costs and attorney fees related to the case.

Attorney Nick Coulson, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case, cited the recent Metro Times cover story as a factor that led to the suit. 

“It appears the odors have worsened substantially in the past few years,” Coulson says in an email. “The recent Metro Times article brought to light increased odor complaints and violations. We believe those reflect not only worsening odor emissions, but also increased community concern.

“People are upset, and they want this problem to stop.” 

The incinerator was constructed in 1986 by the City of Detroit, which issued $440 million in bonds to finance construction of the facility. Since its inception, the trash-burning machine has been a source of complaints. Soon after, then-Mayor Coleman Young sold it for $54 million to private investors, including tobacco giant Philip Morris. By 2009, Detroit had spent north of $1.2 billion to retire the incinerator bonds. Vocal opponents called for the city to dump the plan, but the following year, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority — the quasi-public agency created in 1986 that’s responsible for overseeing disposal of the city’s municipal waste — passed a resolution obligating the city to continue sending trash to the incinerator until 2021. That’s when DRP stepped in. 

The facility processes as much as 3,300 tons of trash per week at temperatures higher than 2,300 degrees. Its furnaces create steam that’s purchased by DRP’s sister company, Detroit Thermal, to heat and cool more than 140 buildings between downtown and New Center. The company is permitted to receive as much as 20,000 tons of municipal solid waste per week, according to the state.