Incinerator snuffed?

Jul 2, 2008 at 12:00 am

News Hits isn't ready to declare that a coalition of environmental groups and community activists has achieved an irreversible victory in their battle to have Detroit's municipal waste incinerator shut down, but we do think Champagne corks could be heard popping Monday when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's office announced that the city would not attempt to buy the facility.

The whole thing was way too convoluted to say anything with absolute certainty.

The end, if indeed it is the end, came with just a passing mention of the decision during a City Council meeting being held Monday at Cobo — because the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center remains closed due to last week's lightning strike and fire. All the area media were at that meeting, but they weren't there to cover the incinerator issue. Everyone's attention was focused on a) the question of moving ahead with a deal regarding the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel in an attempt to fill a $65 million budget hole facing the city and b) questions regarding reports last week that the FBI has an investigation under way regarding council's approval of yet another incinerator. That burner — approved by council on a 5-4 vote late last year — would burn sewage sludge from the city's wastewater treatment plant in southwest Detroit.

As late as last week, the Kilpatrick administration seemed determined to keep pursuing plans to purchase the incinerator despite council's vote to shift toward a combination of landfilling and ramped-up recycling programs.

Those who have been following the situation closely were at a loss when asked to explain why the administration seemed to abruptly change course. Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams mentioned the administration's decision only in passing at Monday's council meeting.

Council member JoAnn Watson, who has spearheaded the effort to shut the incinerator, says Adams told her earlier in the day that attempts to purchase the facility were ending.

"He told me that we had won and that 'maybe this will help you make the right decision on the tunnel,'" says Watson. She was one of five council members who voted against the administration's tunnel plan.

"We decided not to buy it," Adams told News Hits after the meeting. He also said the city has no interest in leasing the facility. Negotiations with landfill operators, already under way, will continue "until we get the best price possible."

Asked if the administration's decision was because the incinerator couldn't be purchased at a price it considered acceptable, or because of council's opposition to a purchase, Adams replied that Team Kilpatrick's decision was motivated by a desire to "move toward a greener Detroit."

Give the guy credit for trying to put some positive spin on the situation.

Brad van Guilder, an organizer for the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor and one of the leaders in the effort to close the incinerator, says he's "cautiously optimistic" at this point. As we've reported, the facility's owners still have the option to continue burning Detroit's trash if they can meet or beat the best price being offered by landfill operators. Van Guilder and others, however, maintain that with a surplus of landfill space available in southeast Michigan and the costs associated with running the incinerator, it is highly unlikely the facility could legitimately compete with dumpsites. "Unless somebody has the fix in somewhere, I don't see it happening," says van Guilder.

Attempts to obtain comment from Energy Investors Fund, which owns a majority share of the incinerator, and Covanta Energy, parent corporation of the company that operates the facility, were unsuccessful.

Some big questions remain unanswered, chief among them the issue of how to replace the steam (much of it used by the city itself) and electricity being produced by the incinerator, which is located near the intersection of interstates 94 and 75.

What also remains to be seen is the degree to which Detroiters will embrace recycling. Money for a pilot curbside recycling program is included in the city's proposed budget for the new fiscal year that began July 1, with the plan having the support of both the council and the administration. As it stands now, of the nation's 30 largest cities, Detroit is the only one without a curbside recycling program. In the past, the need to keep the incinerator operating at full capacity was blamed for being an inhibitor to recycling.

In a sense, the work of environmentalists and community activists who want to see Detroit grow greener has just begun. But on Monday, there was reason to celebrate.

"We're pleased that Mayor Kilpatrick has decided to protect the citizens of Detroit from excessive disposal fees, and safeguard the city's children from smog, asthma and the many other ailments that are caused in part by this facility," Sandra Turner-Handy, community outreach director with the Michigan Environmental Council, said in a press release. "This is a breath of fresh air; literally and figuratively."

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