At the intersection of two highways just outside downtown Detroit, a hulking relic of the city’s past looms over the skyline: the largest municipal trash incinerator in the US. It’s a facility that has raised concerns of nearby residents since its construction in the 1980s.
And some days, it stinks.
“The odors, if you ride I-94, you get this foul, rotten egg smell,” said Sandra Turner-Handy, who lives about three miles from the facility.
The 59-year-old said her son used to work a block away from the incinerator and said the smell was “constant”. Her granddaughter developed asthma while attending a school near the incinerator, but hasn’t used an inhaler since she graduated and moved away.
The persistent odor and emission of other polluting substances are among 40 alleged Clean Air Act and state violations that have been logged against the company that owns the facility, Detroit Renewable Energy, since March 2015, according to a notice to sue by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
“It’s the things that you can’t smell that are the most harmful,” said Turner-Handy. “And how do residents report something that they can’t smell?”
In 2015, the incinerator burned over 650,000 tons of garbage, according to the notice. And since the beginning of that year, the incinerator has been fined for persistently violating an earlier agreement with the state for alleged state violations.
The law center also said in the filing that the incinerator presents a clear example of an environmental justice problem, as a majority of the trash burnt at the facility is imported from outlying communities, which pay $10 per ton less than Detroit to dispose of garbage.
“In short, Detroit is subsidizing other communities throughout the State of Michigan, the Midwest, and Canada to dispose of its garbage at the Incinerator,” the filing said, with the incinerator “located in a neighborhood that is composed mostly of low-income people of color and is heavily overburdened by air pollution”.
There’s a long-running debate over whether incineration is better for the environment than landfills. But communities located near incinerators have long lamented that they bear the brunt of its adverse impacts on air quality.
Citing statistics from the EPA, the center said 7,280 residents live within one mile of the incinerator, of whom 60% live below the federal poverty line and 87% are people of color. An EPA report also found that the area is a “hotspot for respiratory related health impacts when compared to other Michigan communities”, according to the law center.
The notice to sue also names Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, along with the state and federal environment agencies. The agencies have 60 days to commence an enforcement action, the law center said, and if neither pursues any, a lawsuit may be filed on behalf of residents to enforce the Clean Air Act.
Detroit Renewable Energy, which says the facility provides energy to more than 140 buildings in the downtown and midtown neighborhoods, downplayed the litany of claims in the notice of intent.
In a statement, the company said that it has invested approximately $6m over the last few years to “improve odor management” at the facility. The company said it employs nearly 300 residents, operates a “sophisticated” waste-to-energy facility, and “places the highest priority on complying with the strict and complex requirements established by the EPA and the state environmental department.
“In short, we have done our part,” the company said. “Any claim to the contrary would simply be false.”
The law center says otherwise.
Beyond odor, the notice of intent to sue also highlights an additional 19 violations for emitting carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter above legal thresholds. The incinerator creates a “significant amount” of particulate matter, said Nick Schroeck, executive director of the center, which “can get lodged in people’s lungs”.
The incinerator can’t be directly linked to cases of asthma, but the filing said
“particulate matter emissions have been shown to trigger asthma incidents, particularly amongst children”.
Activists are pushing for a ballot initiative for November 2017 to close down the facility in favor of cleaner-energy-producing methods.
“We initially approached this topic sort of by looking at what it was we could do that would be effective within the confines of city law, of state law, and how a ballot initiative could actually rectify a problem in the city,” said Mac Farr, treasurer and spokesman for Sustainable Detroit. “And we could take a policy change and use it to both unify the city and also make the lives of Detroiters better. This was the topic that we settled on.”
Farr said the group’s motivations for the ballot initiative stem from the “public health ramifications” of the incinerator.
“We have some of the highest rates of asthma [in Detroit], the highest that are clustered directly downwind of this incinerator,” he said. “It’s four to five times the statewide average, and there’s a public health dimension to this that needs to be addressed.”
Farr said the group hopes the ballot petition will force city officials to examine the issue, but it has no clear solution for how Detroit should dispose of waste without an incinerator. He suggested a more “robust, citywide recycling program” could “divert a lot of material out of the waste dream if we were to shut off incineration as a method of disposal”.
Officials estimated earlier this year that only 11% of households in the city are recycling.
Dr Abdul El-Sayed, executive director and health officer at the Detroit health department, said issues surrounding the incinerator hadn’t been on his department’s radar until recently, but it’s now “very squarely on my plate”.
“I think it’s obvious that when you burn anything, it’s going to produce material that goes up into the air, that material can do a number of hazardous things,” El-Sayed said. “I think it’s clear that those things are not good for the lungs, and the eyes and some of the other organs … the heart. It’s, generally, not the cleanest, most efficient way of addressing the problem with garbage.”