No direction known

One year ago, it looked as if the question of what to do with Detroit's garbage had been settled. A coalition of environmental and health groups had apparently succeeded in convincing the city's leaders to stop burning trash at a municipal incinerator that produces steam and electricity; instead the city would pursue "a new business model" for garbage disposal. It's a model that relies heavily on recycling, both to benefit the environment and produce jobs.

It was supposed to be a key part of Detroit's future, laying the foundation for Detroit to become a much greener city.

Now — at least as of Tuesday morning, when this is being written — no one seems to know with any certainty what the city will be doing with the nearly 400,000 tons of trash it produces each year, after arrangements between the city and facility expire July 1. 

Last week, moving trucks were brought in, just in case the waste-to-energy facility, located near the intersection of interstates 75 and 94, is shut down. But at the same time, behind the scenes, negotiations that would allow the incinerator to keep operating were under way. And the possibility of the city again becoming an owner of the facility was being openly broached.

How did this happen?

Last year, after a beleaguered Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick had vetoed a City Council resolution calling for a major increase in recycling efforts and a move toward landfills instead of incineration, the council regrouped and overrode that veto, demonstrating apparently solid support for the new model.

For nearly two decades before that, the city had no options. The waste-to-energy facility the city opened in 1989 on Russell Street had come with a staggering debt load. Even though the city sold the facility to private investors in the early 1990s, Detroit taxpayers remained obligated to pay for construction costs and the addition of expensive pollution control equipment that had to be added soon after the incinerator was built. In all, including the interest on bonds issued to pay for that construction and equipment, the cost to the city over the past 20 years has been $1.2 billion.

All that to pay for a facility it no longer owned, but was contractually obligated to continue using. But as of July 1 of this year, those bonds will be retired, opening the way for new options. The Kilpatrick administration clearly wanted to enter into a new contract that would leave the city continuing to use the incinerator, which produces steam and electricity. But with the mayor weakened by scandal, he was unable to fend off a council that voted for what it called "a new business model" for handling the solid waste the city produces each year.

That new model focused heavily on recycling. It also called for the use of landfills instead of incineration. Supporters of the new model, a group that includes all of southeast Michigan's leading environmental groups, argue that continued use of the incinerator will inhibit recycling because the facility needs to burn about 800,000 tons of trash a year to operate.

Those groups contend that if the city keeps feeding the furnace, it will never hit the 50 percent to 60 percent recycling rate being achieved by some other municipalities. Landfills, supporters of the new model argue, would be less costly immediately. Over the long haul, supporters of the new model say, using landfills would save money as more and more recycled trash is sold instead of trucked to a dump.

However, an unexpected contractual obstacle emerged: It was revealed that the city couldn't just end its relationship with the incinerator. As long as the owners — a partnership involving the private equity Energy Investors Funds and a subsidiary of General Electric — could at least match the best deal being offered by landfills, the city could be compelled to continue burning its trash.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that a quasi-government agency — the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which is overseen by a board appointed by Detroit's mayor — is charged with overseeing disposal of Detroit's garbage. Technically, GDRRA decides what to do with Detroit's garbage. In reality, because all the board members are city bureaucrats who are beholden to the mayor for their jobs, it is the city's chief executive who calls the shots.

Over the course of the past year, Detroit has had three different mayors. The one in office now, Dave Bing, voiced opposition to continued use of the incinerator while campaigning for the job. Last week, Charles Beckham, Bing's chief administrative officer and the newly appointed head of the GDRRA board, said during an authority meeting that the new administration is considering repurchasing at least a minority share of the incinerator.

But that GDRRA meeting also demonstrated that, despite a new administration taking over, there's still a sense that things are going on behind closed doors that neither the City Council nor the public at large is privy to. In addition to Beckham floating the idea that the city could purchase General Electric's 30 percent share of the facility, the board also gave permission to Covanta, which operates the incinerator through a subsidiary, to attempt to purchase that same GE share.

Moreover, the board unanimously gave Covanta the go-ahead to pursue a purchase, but took no official action on a possible city purchase. The resolution — which could have far-reaching implications for the city — was passed with no public explanation and no debate of the pros and cons involved.

The City Council, meanwhile, in what seems to be a signal that it is wavering in its insistence that the city begin landfilling its trash, passed a resolution last week that, in essence, asked GDRRA and the administration to offer some transparency. What the council wants, in the words of the resolution, "is a clear and understandable explanation of GDRRA's and the Administration's plans and vision for managing the City of Detroit's MSW [municipal solid waste] after June 30. …"

It also wants a detailed analysis of all the costs associated with landfilling and incineration.

What they've got now is uncertainty. But it is a bizarre situation. According to John Prymack, GDRRA's director, even if a contract were awarded to a landfill as the low bidder, the facility's operator could come back and force the incinerator to be used if it decides to match the landfill price somewhere down the road.

On the other hand, moving trucks have reportedly been at the incinerator for the past few weeks, ready to roll if the plant does shut down. According to Dan McCarthy, business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 547 — which has more than 120 of its members working at the facility — letters have been sent from GDRRA to private haulers that, as of July 1, they should be prepared to stop bringing trash to the incinerator.

With employees not knowing how much longer they will be drawing paychecks, "there's been a lot of anxiety. Working in that place has been a real pressure cooker," says McCarthy. "This thing has got to get settled."

His hope is that settlement includes continued use of the incinerator, which he says is a more environmentally beneficial way of disposal, producing energy instead of simply burying trash. His sense is that a resolution is close, and that when it is done, the incinerator will still be in operation.

For the environmentalists who've fought to have the facility shut, they are again feeling as if they've been left in the dark, as deals that will ultimately serve corporate interests over the public's are being cut behind closed doors instead of out in the open.

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