Hope kindled

Jun 4, 2008 at 12:00 am

Opponents of Detroit's municipal waste incinerator shouldn't get too excited by the fact that the Kilpatrick administration last week decided it wouldn't renew a lease involving the facility's owners and Covanta Energy, the company that operates the plant.

As this rag has been reporting, the crucial deadline regarding the fate of the incinerator is July 1. That's when the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, a quasi-governmental entity governed by a board composed of mayoral appointees, must notify the plant's owners of the city's long-range plans regarding garbage disposal.

At this point all options still remain open — at least according to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's people. The city could still enter into a new lease, it could buy the facility, or it could shift to landfilling. However, the landfill option is only doable if the incinerator's owners — Energy Investment Funds of Boston and General Electric Capital Corp. — can't meet or beat the best landfill rates, according to Anthony Adams, Kilpatrick's deputy mayor and the appointed head of the GDRRA board.

But those options are only viable if you accept the administration's position that GDRRA — established to oversee the incinerator and the city's trash disposal issues — is the ultimate decider of what happens.

Councilmember JoAnn Watson has a radically different take on the issue. Watson, working with a coalition of environmental and neighborhood activists, convinced a majority of the council to pass a resolution declaring that they want to stop using the incinerator, turning instead to a system that relies on landfilling combined with greatly increased recycling efforts.

Last week Watson's office fired off copies of that resolution to every player with a dog in this fight so that no one can claim they weren't notified of the city's intent.

The mayor's office says that resolution — which the mayor vetoed, only to see it overridden — is nonbinding, and that only GDRRA can officially make a decision.

Legal authority aside, there is also the power of the purse at play here: Watson contends that City Council will ultimately have its way because it controls the flow of tax dollars into GDRRA's coffers, and that for the money to keep flowing the incinerator must go.

As a side note, News Hits found the circumstances surrounding last week's decision curious. Namely, we're wondering: who actually made it? As far as we can tell, it should have been the GDRRA board that made the call. Watson thought so too. Except ...

"GDRRA did not officially meet," she observes, "so I wondered how they did it?"

Now is a particularly bad time for GDRRA to be operating like a fiefdom rather than a public body. Secrecy only exacerbates a conflict that holds the potential to erupt into an epic standoff between City Council and the Kilpatrick administration.

Although the mayor's office says all options remain under consideration, every time Adams speaks on the issue, he emphasizes the importance of the incinerator — especially the steam and electricity it provides, and the difficulty of finding replacement power sources if the incinerator goes down — and problems associated with landfilling. So it seems clear what KK and crew want to do.

To keep pressure on the administration, about 100 people turned up at City Hall last week to protest the incinerator.

As this all continues to play out, here's something to ponder: If the council majority opposing the incinerator holds together (and there's no guarantee of that) and the administration — through GDRRA — attempts to keep using the incinerator, will council have the resolve to shut off the cash flow? We asked Watson if she thought it possible that garbage might start piling up if each side digs in and waits for the other to blink?

"Absolutely," she says. "It could be like our version of the Cuban missile crisis."

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