Still smoldering

Mar 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

While the uproar over what to do with Cobo Center continues to take center stage, the issue of what do about Detroit's municipal waste incinerator is quietly playing out in the background, virtually unnoticed.

Here's the latest: Earlier this year, without consulting either the Detroit City Council or holding a meeting of the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority Board, the quasi-governmental body that oversees operation of the waste-to-energy facility on the city's east side, a decision — presumably with the blessing of the Cockrel administration — was made to issue a new call for bid proposals from waste haulers.

Instead of hearing how much they would charge to take Detroit's garbage to landfills for the next decade, as was originally requested, GDRRA reduced the time frame from 10 to one to four years.

John Prymack, GDRRA's appointed director, says that's to help the authority better manage the wild-card expense of a volatile fuel market. Who knows what diesel prices will be 10 years from now?

Skeptics such as Brad van Guilder, the Ecology Center staffer who has been bird-dogging this issue for years, says that it was really a move to drive up the cost of landfilling in an attempt to make the incinerator more competitive. It is sort of like buying in bulk, he explains: the more you purchase, the cheaper things usually are. The same logic applies to landfilling — a 10-year obligation should get you a better deal than just one-year contract.

It's a crucial issue because, according to a long-standing contractual obligation, the facility's majority owner, Energy Investors Fund, has the option to meet or beat the best price offered by waste haulers. If they choose to do that, then the city must continue to use the incinerator, no matter what. (That contention, however, is disputed by Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who contends the city, which created GDRRA, could simply disband it, voiding any contract.)

Watson is also steamed that the council wasn't even notified, much less consulted, before the new request for proposals was issued. As the council's point person on this issue, she says she didn't find out about the change until News Hits asked her about it.

Considering the secret wheeling and dealing that went on during the Kilpatrick years, she was hoping for better from former council mate Ken Cockrel Jr., who twice voted to send trash to landfills instead of the incinerator as council president last year but has been quite cagey about what he'd like to see happen with the incinerator since becoming mayor.

Council, at Watson's behest, has been trying to see what the 10-year bids came in at — something this paper also tried to do through a Freedom of Information Act request. But GDRRA says that information isn't public because the process is ongoing.

The facts, however, are going to come out sooner or later. And maybe all the skeptics will be proved wrong in thinking this deal's being skewed to keep the incinerator operating. We'll know for sure when bid proposals are unsealed publicly on June 17 — a mere two weeks before the city's current contract with the incinerator operator expires. In the meantime, though, GDRRA isn't doing much to help ease concerns when its making decisions behind closed doors and not keeping council in the loop.

"Something stinks," says Watson, "and I'm not talking about the garbage."

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