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Editor's Column: Incinerator Shutdown


Nicholas LeonardPublished in Michigan Environmental Law Journal, Summer 2019, Vol. 37, No. 1, Issue 106 [view full issue].
Cite: 37 Mich Env Law J 1 (2019)

by Nicholas Leonard, Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

On March 27 of this year, Detroit Renewable Energy suddenly announced that it was permanently closing its trash incinerator. Since its inception, the incinerator has been mired in controversy. Originally owned by the city of Detroit, the construction of the facility was the subject of litigation and protests. Since 1991, the incinerator has operated under a number of private owners. The facility’s closure comes at a time when it was facing mounting legal pressure from both the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, as well as private litigants regarding the facility’s odors and several violations of emission limits for certain chemicals into the air. In November of 2018, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy sent Detroit Renewable Power notice of the commencement of an escalated enforcement action. In January 2019, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center sent the owner of the incinerator a notice of their intent to file a citizen suit under the Clean Air Act for hundreds of alleged violations of air-emission limits.

The closure of the incinerator has been a significant win for environmental justice advocates. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 21,927 people lived within 1.5 miles of the incinerator: 76% of those individuals were people of color and 71% were low-income. For decades, this community had borne the brunt of the negative externalities associated with the facility. The incinerator was one of the largest emitters of air pollution in an area that has no shortage of them, which presented increased public health risks for nearby residents. Residents also frequently complained about prolonged periods of loud noises similar to that made from jet engines that resulted from the operation of the incinerator. Lastly, strong odors from the facility in the summer months had been a constant source of frustration for neighbors, as residents were often forced to retreat from their backyards into their homes. For the first summer in decades, residents will be able to enjoy their backyards in the summertime without the threat of trash odors looming down the street.

Of course, the closure of the incinerator does pose a number of challenges. One key issue is how local governments will manage the closure of a large solid waste disposal facility in both the short and long term. The facility was one of the largest municipal waste incinerators in the country, and one of the largest solid waste facilities in the State. The closure has sent many local governments that were relying on the incinerator scrambling to find alternative disposal sites on short notice. These issues arise as many local governments are dealing with ongoing recycling issues, which were largely precipitated by China’s refusal to continue accepting America’s recyclables.

While the incinerator was also primarily responsible for generating steam that was distributed to dozens of customers on the Detroit steam loop for heating and cooling purposes, Detroit Thermal, another subsidiary of Detroit Renewable Energy, expects to continue to operate the loop with steam generated from its natural gas-fired plant.

In the end, the owners of the incinerator stated that they decided to close the facility because the costs to upgrade the facility to ensure it operated in compliance with the law were too great. However, it is important to note that while the owners have permanently closed the facility, much remains to be determined. The facility’s air quality permits are still effective, although the owners have stated that all trash burning has ceased.

Additionally, while Detroit Renewable Energy owns the incinerator, the city of Detroit owns the land on which the incinerator sits. As such, the future use of the site is still an open question as well. While there are plenty of issues to be hashed out, for now, the incinerator’s smokestack is quiet for the first time in decades.

(Sources for this article are available upon request)