With no fanfare, Detroit's incinerator quietly shuts down

Apparently no one noticed, and no press conferences were held to alert residents, but the city quietly began landfilling its trash on Oct. 1, according to Dan Lijana, a spokesperson for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

For more than 20 years, Detroit's municipal waste has been disposed of at the waste-to-energy facility located on the city's east side. But the incinerator's operator and minority owner, Covanta Energy, issued a statement saying that it closed the facility Oct. 1 because of "economic factors."

Although the facility stopped accepting trash Oct. 1, it continued to burn stockpiled inventory until last Friday, according to the company.

A contingency plan formulated by the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority — the quasi-governmental agency charged with overseeing disposal of Detroit's trash — was implemented at the beginning of the month, with trash being trucked to a landfill.

The problem for Covanta and the facility's majority owner, Energy Investors Fund, is that they were unable to enter into a steam purchase contract with Detroit Thermal, which provides steam for the heating and cooling of nearly 150 downtown buildings.

Steam has continued to flow through the underground system because Detroit Thermal has the capacity to produce its own steam by burning natural gas.

At the same time, Detroit Thermal's parent company, Thermal Ventures II of Youngstown, Ohio, has been in negotiations to buy the incinerator. According to Covanta spokesperson James Regan, a 90-day option to purchase the facility expired at the end of September without a deal being reached. It has been rumored, but not confirmed, that another investor had partnered with Thermal Ventures II in an attempt to buy the incinerator.

Covanta, in a prepared statement, said: "We are still exploring scenarios with a myriad of stakeholders in Detroit. If the right agreements can be reached, the plant will reopen."

The facility's closure substantiates much of what opponents of the incinerator have long contended, says Brad van Guilder of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. A staunch critic of the incinerator, van Guilder has been a leader in the fight to have it permanently shuttered.

He says the shutdown adds credence to longstanding claims that the facility isn't economically viable, and cannot produce steam at a competitive price.

"This facility has never been essential to the city of Detroit," he says. "It has just been extremely costly."

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