Learn or get burned

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 am

Note to City Council: When it comes to the Detroit waste-to-energy facility, otherwise known as the incinerator, we are here to help.

A lot of you are new to the body and, as rookies, have a lot to assimilate. The city's financial predicament is dire, and the number of complicated issues you have to gain a firm grasp of are daunting.

Of all the things you have do deal with during the current budget process, none is likely to be more complex and convoluted than the incinerator issue. We've been following the matter closely for two years now, and there are things we still don't fully understand.

But you are willing to learn. That was obvious from the questions being asked at the hearing held last Friday. Some on the Council, particularly Ken Cockrel Jr. and JoAnn Watson, are intimately familiar with what's going on with the incinerator. Also, the attorneys in your Research and Analysis Division have been diligently trying to find their way through the thicket of agreements that seemingly bind the city to the incinerator.

First things first: Although Detroit paid for it, the city does not own the incinerator (although it does still own the land it sits on). The majority owner is an outfit called Energy Investors Fund; the minority owner and facility operator is a company named Covanta, which is big-time into the incinerator business.

The city is obligated to turn its trash over to the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which is funded by Detroit taxpayers, to dispose of the city's garbage; GDRRA, however, is not necessarily obligated to send that trash to the incinerator, where it is burned to create steam and electricity. 

What GDRRA is obligated to do is keep sending trash to the incinerator as long as the owners and operators of the facility can meet or beat the lowest offer from a landfill.

Last year, in a process that critics say seemed deliberately skewed to drive up the price of landfilling, GDRRA issued a bid request. Covanta, matched the price, which is about $25 per ton.

One question to be asked: Why is the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority paying less then $20 per ton to dispose of its trash at a landfill in Salem Township.

During last week's budget hearing, one councilmember asked GDRRA Executive Director John Prymack if the incinerator would be able to keep operating if the city were to divert its trash to a landfill. Prymack indicated that it is likely trash from Canada and New York would find its way here.

But here's a question to ask yourselves: Why would anyone from out of state pay $25 a ton to dispose of trash at the incinerator when they could pay considerably less at a landfill?

And then ask yourself: Why would Prymack make a claim that, on its face, seems at best far-fetched?

You might want to talk to Anthony Adams, the appointed chair of GDRRA during the Kilpatrick administration, who stated unequivocally that the incinerator could not afford to operate without receiving the trash of its single largest customer — the city of Detroit.

At the meeting, Councilmember Gary Brown rightly focused on the $44 million loss GDRRA has racked up. The council was told that it is "an accounting issue." That, it seems to us, is an entirely unsatisfactory answer, and council should not stop asking the question until it receives a coherent explanation as to what caused that deficit, and who is on the hook for it.

Remember: Even though Mayor Bing has appointed city staff to fill the GDRRA board, GDRRA is not the city. It is a separate legal entity.

At this point, there appears to be little chance anything is going to change for the fiscal year that begins July 1. GDRRA didn't bother issuing another request for proposals from landfills to see if it could get a better deal for the city's taxpayers.

So, it appears, we are stuck with the incinerator for at least another year.

You heard from GDRRA and the Bing administration that the incinerator is considered "green" because it uses a renewable resource — garbage — instead of fossil fuels to create steam and electricity.

If it is really so green, why is every environmental group in southeast Michigan working to have the place shut down?

You may have heard Charlie Beckham, who Mayor Bing appointed to be head of the GDRRA board, claim that the city needs the incinerator's steam to heat and cool its buildings. The falseness of that claim was proved last year when, because of a breakdown in contract negotiations, Detroit Thermal, which buys steam from the incinerator operator, began burning natural gas and did so for months, ensuring that the steam kept coming.

The activists we talk with have been impressed by the quality of your questions so far, and the sincere concern you have shown in regard to addressing this issue in a way that is truly best for the people of Detroit. These same activists are holding out hope that before the next budget process rolls around in 2011, you all will have had the time and the inclination to completely understand all the factors that go into making the right decisions regarding continued use of the incinerator, and that the city will have what it doesn't now: a clear long-range plan for managing the disposal of Detroit's garbage. Key to that is a much greater emphasis on recycling than is currently the case.

These activists want Detroit to become a city that is truly green. For that to happen, they say, the incinerator has to be removed from the equation. As it stands now, the message we are sending to the world beyond Detroit is that we are tied to an old and costly technology.

And lest you think that people outside of Detroit aren't paying attention to this issue, consider this: When the U.S. Social Forum convenes in Detroit next month, attracting thousands of left-leaning activists from around the world, one of the targets of protest is going to be the Detroit incinerator.

As we said, the learning curve on this issue is dauntingly steep, and we don't envy you the task of mastering a subject so complex. Doing so, however, is clearly imperative. 

And there are a lot of people willing to help.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or [email protected]