Still burning

Sep 2, 2009 at 12:00 am

At last week's meeting of the Environmental Justice Committee that she chairs, Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson noted that she frequently talks with people who think efforts last year to close the city's municipal waste incinerator were successful.

The mistake is understandable, considering that the council twice voted last year to stop sending trash to the waste-to-energy facility, opting instead for landfills in combination with stepped-up recycling efforts.

Despite those votes, the quasi-public Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority — overseen by a board of mayoral appointees — recently entered into a one-year agreement to continue supplying the incinerator with Detroit trash, and is pursuing the possibility of signing a five-year lease. It is also considering buying at least a 30 percent share of the facility, and could even try to buy the whole thing.

There's a fair amount of irony there, considering that more than $1 billion Detroit tax dollars have already been spent to construct the plant, add air pollution equipment and pay off the financing debt — even though it sold the facility in the early 1990s to help solve a budget shortfall. Now the city is free and clear of all financial obligations.

And it is thinking about re-purchasing what it once owned?

Although he opposed continued use of the incinerator while campaigning for the mayor's job in the spring, Dave Bing and crew are now stalwart defenders of the plant, which generates steam and electricity. Part of the issue, they say, is that contracts entered into long ago continue to bind them to the incinerator as long as its operators can match the best price offered by landfills, which is what they say happened during a bidding process that culminated in June.

Essentially, it is the position of GDRRA that the city is locked into the deal and can't get out of it. Period. And it doesn't matter what the council wants.

But there is a possible way out. In a memo drafted last year by David Whitaker, director of the Resource and Analysis Division that provides legal advice to the council, he notes that GDRRA came into being as a result of votes by the Detroit and Highland Park city councils. (Participation by at least two municipalities was needed to create the authority, but it appears Highland Park's participation stopped there.) Although the articles of incorporation essentially put the decision-making power in the hands of the Detroit mayor — through his appointments to the GDRRA board — that structure could be changed through a vote of the two city councils.

One catch is that any change — especially the possible attempt by the councils to dissolve GDRRA — can't interfere with existing obligations. But the way Watson sees it, there's a small window of opportunity here. As it is now, the existing GDRRA contract with facility operator Covanta is only for one year. 

It is conceivable, says Watson, that both city councils could wrest control away from Bing and his appointees before any new long-term agreements are entered into. Doing so won't be easy, she admits, and it won't happen without an outpouring of public pressure — the kind that was seen last year when pickets descended on City Hall to pressure then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to back off support for the incinerator.

For that to happen, though, people have to realize that issue is still alive.

Consider yourself informed.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]