A newly formed group called the End Users Coalition, made up of businesses connected to the steam grid supplied by Detroit's municipal waste incinerator, held a meeting last week featuring two proponents of waste-to-energy facilities.
Until now, most of the news regarding the incinerator has been generated by opponents of the facility — primarily a coalition of Michigan environmental groups. Last week's event marked the first time proponents took center stage at a public forum.
The primary message delivered by chemical-environmental engineer Jack D. Lauber and toxicologist Laura Green, president of the consulting firm Cambridge Environmental and a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is that Detroit's incinerator poses no significant health threat and is more environmentally responsible than landfilling.
Also speaking at the meeting at the Johanson Charles Gallery in Eastern Market on Thursday were the owner of a recycling operation and an outspoken Detroit critic of the waste-to-energy plant, which burns trash from Detroit and surrounding communities, generating steam and electricity in the process.
Moderating the event was political consultant Adolph Mongo, who told a gathering of about two dozen people that, as an appointee of former Mayor Coleman A. Young 20 years ago, he worked on the incinerator issue as the facility was being built and brought online. "It was controversial then, and it is controversial now," said Mongo, himself a controversial figure who has worked on the campaigns of current Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick
The city of Detroit and the quasi-public Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which oversees disposal of Detroit's trash, are in the midst of deciding whether to continue using the incinerator. Although the Kilpatrick administration claims to still be evaluating the issue, critics say the mayor and his team are maneuvering to keep the incinerator going.
Lauber, formerly chief of technology assessment for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, has been a consultant to waste-processing technology firms and serves as an expert witness in environmental litigation, according to his résumé. He's also a consultant to Columbia University's Earth Engineering Center (EEC).
In 2002 the EEC, in collaboration with the Integrated Waste Services Association, a trade group for companies handling municipal solid waste (including Covanta, the company that operates the Detroit incinerator), founded the Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council. The council promotes waste-to-energy facilities.
Lauber said during his time working for the state of New York he spent years fighting what he described as old-fashioned, inefficient and dangerous incinerators that simply burned trash. Now he is a promoter of facilities like Detriot's that — with the use of computer-controlled equipment and high-technology air pollution control devices — combine the burning of trash with the generation of power.
He says landfills, which emit methane (a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than the carbon dioxide produced when fossil fuels are burned), pose a much more significant environmental threat than modern WTE facilities.
The bottom line, said Lauber, is that the technology exists to make sure WTE emissions are properly controlled. "Waste to energy is the hope of the future," he said, noting that facilities such as the one in Detroit are an "important alternative energy source."
Green, a toxicologist who has a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is president of a Massachusetts-based company that conducts research and consults companies on ways to "minimize risks to health and the environment."
In 2006, the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, a coalition of 40 New York City neighborhood groups, described Green as a "consultant often hired by polluting industries to defend their practices."
In a 2001 federal court case, Green was an expert witness for a cement company that wanted to build a Camden, N.J., facility that would "grind and process granulated blast furnace slag," in the process emitting mercury, lead, manganese, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and volatile organic compounds. Also in question was whether emissions of certain particulate matter would lead to increases in asthma incidents, a point Green disputed. The court, in that case, found Green's testimony to be less credible than that of the expert witness testifying on behalf of area residents fighting the facility.
In Detroit, Green made the case that even though it seems "counter-intuitive," studies show that as air quality gets better, problems associated with asthma are growing worse.
There is growing evidence, she said, that asthma may be related to immune system deficiencies. During her presentation, Green skimmed past the fact that the major pollutant being produced by the Detroit incinerator, nitrogen oxide, leads to the formation of ozone, and that ozone — at ground level — is widely regarded as being connected with respiratory problems.
Asked about this afterward by Metro Times, Green said given the height of the stacks at the Detroit incinerator, any ozone being created would not affect people at ground level.
"If the facility were to disappear," she asked, "would Detroit's asthma problem get better? No."
Brad van Guilder, an organizer for the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor and a leading incinerator opponent, told Metro Times that problems with ozone from the plant depend on weather conditions: During times of "stagnant" air people are affected. As we previously reported, a study done during the 1990s found a high correlation between incinerator location and a variety of health problems, including asthma.
Kevin Hanson, owner of the Johanson Charles Gallery in which the event was held and a founder of the End User Coalition, said that the group has received no contributions from incinerator interests and that both Lauber and Green shouldered their expenses for coming to Detroit to speak.
The event was held, he said, so that other points of view regarding the incinerator could get a fair hearing. Dan McCarthy, business manager for Operating Engineers Local 547, which represents plant workers, expressed one of those points. He voiced concern that, if the facility were to shut, more than 160 "good-paying union jobs" would be lost.
As for a primary concern expressed by members of the End Users Coalition, Detroit Thermal, the company that buys the steam produced at the incinerator and then redistributes it to customers in Detroit, says that the steam could be replaced by ramping up production at another downtown facility that burns natural gas. The cost would almost certainly be higher, but at this point it is impossible to tell how much higher, says Victor Koppang, Detroit Thermal's general manager.
"It would be to our disadvantage and our customers' disadvantage" to lose the incinerator, say Koppang.
Hanson says he was happy with the level of discussion at last week's event and would like to see more.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]