Smoke and numbers

Saulius Simoliunas, a chemist at the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant, has been keeping a close eye on the city’s plans to ship its sewage sludge to a privately owned incinerator. Detroit Minergy’s yet-to-be-built $100 million facility could incinerate as much as 600 tons of sludge a day to produce a glass aggregate used in highway paving and other building material. Minergy officials claim that state-of-the-art technology will enable their incinerator to emit far less pollution than the furnace currently used at the city’s treatment plant.

But Simoliunas isn’t convinced.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is currently reviewing Minergy’s incinerator permit application. At the same time, the DEQ also is reviewing Detroit’s renewal application for its incinerator. Simoliunas, a longtime environmental advocate, has been reviewing both documents, and what he’s found doesn’t seem to add up.

For instance, Minergy states that it will release about 32 tons of particulate matter each year compared to the current incinerator’s 240 tons annually. But in its renewal application, the city reports that only 58 tons of particulate matter was released from its facility in 1998.

So, how did Minergy and Detroit come up with such vastly different numbers? Minergy’s numbers are based on what facilities similar to the city’s nationwide emit incinerating 600 tons of sludge, says Minergy spokesperson Dave Waymire. Detroit’s numbers are based on how much sludge the city actually incinerated in 1998, far less than 600 tons, says Gary Fujita, wastewater plant operations assistant director.

Rather than improve things, it appears that the Minergy plant could result in a net increase of some pollutants being dumped into our air because it has the potential to burn so much more sludge than the city is currently incinerating. For example, the city plant currently emits 52 tons of sulfur dioxide per year compared to 236 tons yearly expected from Minergy.

Waymire says we shouldn’t worry because the plant isn’t expected to ever burn at capacity.

As for the DEQ, it’s saying that the numbers are irrelevant anyway.

Randy Telez, DEQ permit engineer, says that we shouldn’t make too much of the discrepancies. Emissions data often misleads, he says, which is why he doesn’t consider it in his permit review.

“We don’t look at numbers,” says Telez. He is legally required to look instead at whether Minergy is using the best available technology to keep the environment clean, a more reliable and stringent standard, says Telez.

So why would Minergy include emissions data in its application if it is not relevant to Telez’s review? He suspects, as does News Hits, that if the public learns of Minergy’s permit application it will be duped into thinking that better emissions data means a better incinerator.

“They want to look favorable to the pubic,” says Telez.

But, of course, Minergy didn’t count on Simoliunas to compare the company’s permit to Detroit’s. Thanks for the tip, Saul.

Ann Mullen contributed to News Hits, which is edited by Curt Guyette. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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