New debate over Detroit's incinerator

Mar 31, 2011

Detroit is home to one of the world’s largest incinerators. That facility burns around 800,000 tons of trash every year.

The issue has sparked passionate conflict in Detroit for more than 20 years. And a recent public hearing—on whether to give the incinerator’s new owners tax credits—showed that conflict is just as intense as ever.

The Detroit incinerator has been controversial since it opened in 1989. It’s a massive, hulking presence just north of downtown Detroit. For years, pro- and anti-incinerator sides have argued about virtually everything: whether the facility is a cost-effective alternative to landfills, whether it’s responsible for the asthma cluster around it, even about how bad it does or doesn’t smell.

For a brief time last year, anti-incinerator forces got a boost when the facility’s former owners, Covanta Energy, got out. They hoped the city would stop sending its trash there, and move to a more recycling-intensive municipal waste system. But another, newly-formed company quickly bought the facility. Detroit Renewable Energy is now seeking about four million dollars in brownfield redevelopment tax credits. Those are state incentives that encourage businesses to redevelop contaminated property.

Here's Steve White, Chairman of Detroit Renewable Energy:

“It’s a matter of being able to implement things faster. To the extent that we have more resources, we’ll be able to do more things.”

He says the tax credits will help the company upgrade the facility and make it cleaner. White says they’ve already made big improvements, and a slew of plant workers at the hearing backed up his claims.

But White says the incinerator does more than just burn trash—it creates energy. And that’s true. The trash burned there creates an underground “steam loop” that powers many homes and businesses around it. White says the facility can continue providing relatively cheap, reliable power to businesses in one of Detroit’s few growing areas.

“This is more than just disposal of waste. This is really about economic development.”

But those who have fought the incinerator for years think White’s arguments are hogwash. Brad van Guilder is an organizer with the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. He says the incinerator itself simply isn’t viable without continued public subsidies. And van Guilder says the company’s proposal for the tax credits is frustratingly vague.

“There is no information about what they are specifically proposing to do to qualifies them for this tax credit. So how can anyone make an informed response when you don’t anything about what they’re intending to do?”

While the hearing itself was officially about the tax credits, they became just one issue in the larger, ongoing debate over the incinerator. Lee Gaddies, a Detroit resident and community activist, appealed to the plant’s workers. He says recycling more of Detroit’s waste isn’t just greener—it will actually create more jobs.

“You’re actually gonna need more people to handle the solid waste. If you burn it, there’s nothing to recycle. It’s ash.”

Gaddies and the Ecology Center’s Brad van Guilder say it doesn’t matter if tax credits DO help the incinerator become a little greener. They say the state still shouldn’t use public money to perpetuate Detroit’s historically dirty municipal waste system.

And if Detroit Renewable Energy DOES get the tax credits, they’ll probably be one of the last to do so. Governor Rick Snyder has proposed cutting the brownfield redevelopment program out of the state budget to save money.