Raising a stink

Jan 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Driving a reporter around his Delray neighborhood in southwest Detroit, John Nagy points out the obvious. "I'm not going to pretend this is Grosse Pointe," he says.

He says this without irony or rancor. The point is this: Sure Delray isn't a place where you'll find any 10,000-square-foot mansions, but just because it's an inner-city neighborhood facing a lot of challenges and populated by the working class and the poor, that doesn't mean it should have to accept a foul-smelling neighbor that will bring down the quality of life further.

Nagy, 52, has lived here his whole life. He remembers when this was a thriving neighborhood, with a bustling business district and block after block of well-kept homes, many of them filled with people of Hungarian descent.

Now that thriving business district is a distant memory and there are perhaps only 650 homes remaining in the entire neighborhood. But there are also signs of hope. As he drives past gap-toothed blocks dotted with empty lots where homes once stood, Nagy smiles as he points out a handful of houses sporting new siding or brickwork, a new porch here, extensive renovation there — all signs that this admittedly "struggling" community still shows signs of life, with money being invested in its future.

With the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant as a neighbor, and other industry in the area, the last thing Delray needs, says Nagy, is "someone else coming in to dump on us."

But that's exactly what Delray is getting, with a facility that turns yard waste into compost setting up operations there last year. The deal's not yet completely done, however. The amount of yard waste — and the corresponding amount of compost, which Nagy describes as smelling like a weird gag-inducing cross between horse manure and Copenhagen snuff — has yet to be determined.

Even opponents seem reconciled to the fact Systematic Recycling — located on Jefferson Avenue across from the wastewater treatment plant in an area zoned for industrial use — is here to stay. The big question now is how bad it might be.

Renee Michaels, who, according to her lawyer, is the sole owner of Systematic, tells Metro Times that her company intends to be a good neighbor, and that it will work diligently to keep a lid on any odor problems.

But such assurances have done little to quell concerns. The facility, which opened with conditional approval last year, is already generating complaints about the smells. Among those registering complaints is the nearby city of River Rouge, which sent Systematic a request to "cease and desist" last September.

"The City is in receipt of numerous complaints regarding 'noxious odors' which are emanating from your compost yard ..." wrote River Rouge City Attorney David A. Bower. "On behalf of the City, I hereby request that you take whatever precautions are necessary to contain these noxious odors and discontinue this nuisance."

Michaels says that she hasn't heard anything more from River Rouge officials since, and that she assumes everything is now "OK" with them. Not so, says Bower: "The problem has not been resolved. Right now the weather is holding it [the smell] down, but I think in the spring it is going to explode."

Lisa Goldstein, executive director of the nonprofit group Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV), takes pains to point out that her group hasn't declared flat-out opposition to Systematic. Composting, after all, is a form of recycling, and the group is obviously supportive of that. What Goldstein and others want is to minimize any potential problems — namely odor and increased truck traffic. What's causing concern, in part, are the wildly shifting numbers that keep appearing in the permitting documents filed with the city of Detroit.

Last January, as the permitting process was getting under way, it was proposed that the facility would be allowed to handle a maximum of 9,600 cubic yards of yard waste — lawn clippings, leaves, brush — a year. Later that number was upped to 60,000 cubic yards annually. In the most recent draft of what's called a "host community" agreement, which will dictate Systematic's operating parameters, it's proposed that the facility be allowed to truck in as much as 400,000 cubic yards of waste a year — more than 40 times the amount that was originally proposed.

The problem, say critics, is that the Systematic site doesn't come close to being large enough to handle that sort of volume. Currently, the state has no regulations that determine how much material can be processed at these types of composting facilities. But the Michigan Recycling Coalition, which offers a state-approved certification course for compost operators, has identified "best management practices" for such facilities. According to those guidelines, such operations can handle between 3,000 to 8,000 cubic yards of waste per acre a year, depending on the sophistication of their equipment.

According to the plan on file with the city, the Systematic site is located on an 18-acre parcel, but the amount of area currently dedicated to composting is only 5.7 acres. Based on the kind of equipment Systematic is using, the Recycling Coalition's guidelines indicate the facility can handle only about 5,000 cubic yards per acre, or a little more than 25,000 cubic yards of material a year.

Truck traffic is also a concern. According to Systematic's estimates, 9,600 cubic yards of waste would mean 230 truckloads a year. Based on those numbers, the upper limit of 400,000 cubic yards proposed in the draft agreement would generate more than 9,400 incoming truckloads a year.

Nagy, who is president of the Delray Community Council, is working with SDEV and others to keep the composting facility's negative effects to a minimum. But getting a clear picture of exactly what's being planned, and what the city might allow, has so far been difficult.

SDEV had to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the documents showing the shifting volumes of material being proposed for the site.

There are other concerns as well. Systematic shares a business address with the headquarters of the troubled King of the Winds farm, a composting facility in Macomb County that's owned by Dolores Michaels, mother of Renee. In 2004, a suit filed by Macomb Township in the mid-1990s was finally settled when King of the Wind agreed to stop accepting new waste within a year and have the entire operation shut down by December 2007.

Records from the state Department of Environmental Quality show that Renee Michaels has at times been the person who dealt with state inspectors when they showed up to investigate complaints about the Macomb operation.

In its initial review of Systematic's proposal, the Detroit Department of Environmental Affairs identified a number of concerns, including the fact the waste would be coming from outside the city, the economic benefit from the three to five "low-end" jobs being created was "almost non-existent," the facility's potential to be a "nuisance" requiring constant and routine monitoring, and the lack of staff to perform such monitoring. Proximity to the Detroit and Rouge rivers, and possible pollution problems for those waterways, was another concern. So was Renee Michaels' family ties to the problem-plagued Macomb operation.

Nonetheless, the city allowed Systematic to begin operation. Environmentalists and civic activists such as Nagy are now counting on the Detroit City Council, which must approve a so-called "host community agreement" that will determine the maximum amount of material that can be processed at the facility annually. Activists will also ask the council to consider mandating Systematic obtain a $1 million performance bond — as opposed to the currently recommended $250,000 bond — to guarantee money is available for full cleanup should the site ever shut down.

Detroit City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the issue on Feb. 15. John Nagy intends to be there. "We're working every day to make this community better, and we think we can be better. But we need help."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]