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Detroit’s incinerator has folks calling for action

Midtown’s big stink

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It didn’t smell when Brittney Willis closed on her Midtown condominium on Halloween of 2011. 

The emergency room nurse at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace Hospital recalls the moment as a transformative period in her life: It was her first big purchase as an adult, she says, one that moved the 28-year-old from her parents’ home in Warren to a rejuvenated community in Detroit. The widely praised “Live Midtown” incentive program, an initiative launched in 2011 to attract prospective homeowners to the district, lessened Willis’ financial burden by offering a $20,000 forgivable loan toward her mortgage.

Between the district’s new restaurants, nightlife, and the Detroit Institute of Arts being located within a stone’s throw, it was an ideal choice, Willis says.

A week after she moved in, though, she caught a whiff of something downright nasty. 

“I came down here a couple times,” Willis, a University of Detroit Mercy graduate, says of the period after signing a purchase agreement in February 2011. “My parents came down here; we didn’t smell anything.”

Though she didn’t realize it at the time, what Willis may have inhaled that day was coming from Detroit’s incineration facility, located nearby at 5700 Russell St.

The hulking incinerator, the largest facility of its kind in the nation, disposes of 3,300 tons of waste per day. It has been a point of controversy in Detroit since before its inception in 1986. 

On Nov. 7, 2011, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) logged a complaint from a Detroit resident who believed it was the source of a “horrible odor” around Midtown.

Two days later, Michigan’s Air Quality Division (AQD) — at the time a division of the NRE, now under the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) — sent an inspector to investigate. 

Downwind from the incinerator, “I smelled a light and intermittent garbage odor near the corner of Trombley Street and Grand Boulevard,” wrote Remilando Pinga, AQD senior environmental engineer, in a complaint investigation obtained by Metro Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. “I also smelled a faint garbage odor north from the facility near the railroad tracks close to the Michigan Box facility.”

Pinga determined the garbage odor was “not of intensity and magnitude to constitute a Rule 901(b) violation,” a section of state administrative protocol which prohibits “unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.” It’s a straightforward nuisance rule that the incinerator’s owner, Detroit Renewable Power (DRP), had already been cited for twice that year, Pinga wrote. 

At the time, Willis didn’t know of Rule 901(b) or even the incinerator. She was still beaming with excitement over her new home. Soon enough, she forgot about the incident. It was wintertime; the scent of garbage just doesn’t carry through cold air. 

But when the following summer arrived, and temperatures started to rise, Willis says, “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’” 

The smell returned again and again — and again. Inside her living room, Willis points to the collection of Bath & Body Works candles she’s accumulated over time as a defense mechanism to fend off the scent of trash. “I’m their biggest fan,” she says, half-sarcastically. 

Those close to Willis have a hard time believing it can be that bad. But one day she managed to prove an unfortunate friend wrong, one who stopped by her place and couldn’t believe how awful it smelled. 

Willis says of the moment: “I was like, ‘Hello! Welcome to Midtown Detroit.’” Earlier this year, Willis says she experienced an asthma attack — the first since she was a child — although she can’t directly attribute it to the incinerator.

Eventually, Willis found she wasn’t the only one inhaling the odor. For years, the Detroit incinerator near the intersection of I-94 and I-75 has had its neighbors raising a stink of their own. 

 

AGAIN AND AGAIN

Last week, MDEQ issued DRP a notice of violation (NOV) for an excessive odor that was traced back to the incinerator. Think of an NOV as a police officer issuing a warning for speeding rather than writing a ticket. It’s a slap on the wrist. It’s a way to say, “Please, get this right so we don’t have to do this again.”

The notice came after three complaints were filed on June 29. MDEQ inspectors then investigated the alleged odor, a process laid out in documents obtained by Metro Times. 

“It’s a horrible, raw waste smell,” a resident wrote June 29, believing it to be from the piles of trash generated by metro Detroiters that accumulates in the nearby facility. Wherever it came from, he said, it kept him from stepping outside.

As shown in MDEQ investigation documents, staff inspectors tracked their process step-by-step in determining the source of the odor. 

“Strong garbage odors were identified impacting residents along Chene Street and Joseph Campau between Hendrie and Medbury Street,” wrote Todd Zynda, of DEQ’s Air Quality Division, in a June complaint investigation. “Constant garbage odors were identified in the residential area of East Grand Boulevard and Medbury Street.”

After explaining how he traced the smell around the neighborhood back to its original location of the incinerator, Zynda wrote: “DRP was determined to be the source of the odors.” 

Detroit’s municipal solid waste incinerator has previously faced complaints about the odor it emits. But since DRP assumed ownership in 2010, the problems, according to MDEQ documents, have only been exacerbated.

The notice of violation (NOV) on July 1 was a call for DRP to fix the odor in order to secure compliance under MDEQ protocol. 

But the notice wasn’t an anomaly: Since 2011, DRP has received 13 NOVs over odor. That’s 13 well-documented slaps on the wrist. The incinerator’s odor is actually the predominant issue the AQD office in Detroit has had to address since DRP took over, according to MDEQ. In 2013 alone, the state logged 114 complaints on the incinerator; in 2008, it received only four. And it’s not just the odor. DRP’s past practices have raised alarm, as well: For instance, in 2012, the incinerator had a six-week backlog of waste that piled up due to malfunctioning equipment — a situation it actually doesn’t have to report to the state. Though DRP has said it’s committed to fixing the odor, critics contend the company has only lollygagged and bought time. On top of that, the incinerator, which cost Detroit more than $1.2 billion to construct, is continually cited as a major polluter that emits pollutants linked to asthma.

Now the issue has escalated to a point where actual fines may be in order. MDEQ is working out the issue with DRP through a proposed consent judgment. “At some point, it was decided enough is enough,” says Mike Kovalchick, MDEQ enforcement unit member assigned to work out the deal with DRP.

The company, though acknowledging it has problems handling the incinerator’s odor, says it’s invested millions in the facility and has additional plans to tackle the issue over the next two years. It also points to MDEQ complaint investigations that show a garbage-odor source could not be found. Still, critics say it’s already taken long enough, and now some residents, like Willis, are thinking twice about where they call home, in what happens to be one of the city’s fastest-growing districts. 

In the numerous MDEQ complaint investigations, there are highlights of the occasionally strained relationship between the state agency and DRP. In some instances, DRP seems to engage in excessive denials that odor is a problem at all.

During a recent odor inspection, DRP representatives rode along with MDEQ officials, who pointed out garbage-like smells they said would typically be attributed to the incinerator. The DRP rep either replied that he didn’t smell anything, or would contend it stemmed from another source.

“At a location on the Chrysler Service Drive near [Kirby], a strong Level 3 garbage odor was detected by AQD staff,” Zynda wrote June 19. “Mr. Alexander [of DRP] stated that a garbage odor was faint, if detectable at all.”

 

INCREASED SCENT

Since 2010, company representatives have pledged to resolve the outstanding odor issues. By the state’s account, under the company’s short tenure, those longstanding issues in the community have only festered.

“Independently, AQD inspectors have verified that the odor problems have gotten worse in that time” wrote Wilhemina McLemore, district supervisor of AQD’s Detroit office, in a report last fall.

Regardless of ownership, a number of residents want the smell to go away. Some of that is driven by groups opposed to the incinerator, such as the Detroit-based coalition Zero Waste Detroit. But no matter what is attributable for the sharp increase, the MDEQ now says the big burner generates enough concern — along with repeated odor offenses — to warrant a consent judgment, essentially an agreement between two parties to settle a matter that is crafted with the Michigan Attorney General’s office, which DRP agreed to begin hashing out last fall. 

The consent judgment would impose fines on DRP, establish state oversight of the facility, implement a timeline for the company to follow to fix the odor, as well as create guidelines for DRP to adhere to — or risk facing additional fines. The move has reignited criticisms of the incinerator as being an outdated polluting machine. Every day, the plant processes as much as 3,300 tons of trash at temperatures higher than 2,300 degrees; its furnaces create steam that’s purchased by DRP’s sister company Detroit Thermal to heat and cool more than 140 buildings between downtown and New Center. The company is permitted to receive as much as 20,000 tons of municipal solid waste per week, according to MDEQ. In the process, it legally emits a melting pot of pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, lead, and particulate matter. 

Tim Kethman, a resident of nearby Woodbridge, isn’t alone in lamenting the decisions of the past; he says the city could’ve made more stringent demands on the incinerator’s design. While being constructed, Kethman says, in an email to Metro Times, there was a window of opportunity for Detroit to install a higher heating exhaust system for the facility’s waste fumes, “ensuring a cleaner output of the expected pollution.”

“Ever since they made that fateful decision so many years ago, to save money over citizen concerns, the exact thing we feared would happen” came to pass, says Kethman, 55. “During the warm months when people ordinarily leave their windows open, especially at night, the strong stench is nauseating to the point we are forced to close those windows, lowering our quality of living in measure.” 

 

COSTLY TRASH

Never has a public works project cost Detroit more to build than its trash-burning machine. The city issued $440 million bonds in 1986 to finance the construction of what’s considered the world’s largest municipal incinerator. Activists like Kethman hit the streets to protest its creation to no avail. By 1989, the facility was fully operational. 

Only four years later, to avert financial catastrophe, then-Mayor Coleman Young sold it for $54 million to private investors, including tobacco giant Philip Morris, although the city continued having to pay tipping fees — charges for delivering a certain amount of waste — and debt costs. By 2009, Detroiters had spent north of $1.2 billion to retire the incinerator bonds. Vocal opponents then called for the city to dump the plant for good. But the following year, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA) — the quasi-public agency created in 1986 that’s responsible for overseeing disposal of the city’s municipal waste — passed a resolution obligating the city to continue sending trash to the incinerator until 2021

Enter Detroit Renewable Power, which purchased the facility in 2010, and later won a questionable affirmative vote from Detroit City Council for $4.1 million in brownfield tax credits. There was an upside: Before, the city was required to ensure the incinerator had enough waste to sufficiently operate, hampering any efforts to implement an efficient curbside recycling program. During that period, suburbs and private contractors generated rates lower than what Detroit itself paid. Now, under its contract with DRP, there’s no set amount to take in.

Detroit pays $25 per ton of waste disposed, about 20 percent more than neighboring communities, Crain’s Detroit Business reported last year. The company says Detroit is its largest customer, with some previous estimates suggesting it accounts for 60 percent of the incinerator’s waste. It’s unclear how much suburban trash the incinerator handles now. 

Still, critics bemoaned the decision to continue burning trash, saying the incinerator emits pollutants linked to asthma, like nitrogen oxide emissions.  

According to Data Driven Detroit, in the area surrounding the incinerator, “The hospitalization rate for asthma … is 2.5 times that of the state.”  

No hard evidence exists that ties the incinerator to asthma rates, though, something Nick Schroeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, called “the classic tragedy of the commons.”

“We don’t exactly know who’s responsible, but we all end up suffering because we can’t track legal causation,” he says, adding, “You can’t say it’s causing” asthma, “but you can say [the incinerator is] a major contributing factor.”

But the most noticeable issue, the pungent smell, is something that’s been heavily detailed by MDEQ. It’s an issue then-DRP President Paul Maier said he wanted to fix in 2011, as the state issued the incinerator’s owner a notice of violation.

“Through this communication, I re-iterate my goal to make this facility as odor-free as possible,” Maier wrote in an Oct. 3, 2011, memo to the state. “A major contributor to the off-site odors … is the wholesale lack of proper and normal maintenance on the boilers that should have occurred prior to [DRP] acquiring the facility.” Maier’s intentions were reiterated in an MDEQ report on the facility’s renewal operating permit in 2011, a license that’s intended to incorporate strict pollution regulations.

A two-year plan was rolled out to tackle the odor. It’s something the company even conceded it struggles with in a statement to Metro Times.

“Although DRP successfully operates in compliance with stringent environmental rules,” allowing it to receive a permit and be operational, “the daily year-round management of large quantities of waste poses occasional challenges in controlling odors,” the company says. “DRP engaged three consulting companies and an internationally known engineering firm to help identify and implement additional steps for mitigating odor.”

Except, by most accounts, the changes haven’t worked yet, as the incinerator has been labeled a non-compliant facility for dozens of months due to Rule 901 violations. 

 

ODOR IS ‘RIDICULOUS’

The state certainly has skin in the game for resolving the odor from Detroit’s incinerator. For one thing, it’d free up additional resources.

“The predominant issue that AQD has had to address on a regular basis is the odors from DRP,” McLemore, of the Detroit Air Quality Division, wrote in an Aug. 16 memo.

For Detroit residents who live near the incinerator, the issue has created an apparent adverse affect to their day-to-day routines. In countless complaints, corroborated by numerous DEQ investigations, the facility is depicted as a foul-stenched behemoth negatively affecting Detroiters in and around Wayne State University’s campus, parts of Midtown, and nearby Poletown. Some describe the scent as cottage cheese, old diapers, or rotten eggs. An extended sample of such remarks filed with the state last month highlights that sentiment:

“Complainant states that it is ‘ridiculous’ that this problem continues and is ‘very frustrated’ with the ongoing situation and wants to know what else people can do to get it resolved.”

“Complainant states that the garbage odors from the incinerator were ‘disgusting’ this morning around 8:00 a.m. in the area of Warren and Cass.”

“Complainant left a voicemail … regarding an ‘overwhelming stench coming from the incinerator.’ She said the smell is preventing her from sitting on her deck this evening.”

“Complainant left a voicemail … stating that the odors from the incinerator are ‘chokingly disgusting.’ … is a resident of the Techtown area. She has smelled odors often in the past but only recently found a number to call.’”

“Complainant [stated] that the smell in the air from the incinerator is ‘stifling’ this morning. Complainant has [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] and cannot breathe or go outside due to the odors. She said she has lived in the area since 1990 … She wants someone to call the mayor to get them to stop this.” 

 

NEED FOR GROWTH

In a city trudging through the largest municipal bankruptcy ever, both its state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, and newly elected Mayor Mike Duggan have cited the tremendous growth in downtown and Midtown in recent years as a sign of Detroit’s turnaround. Look at the occupancy rates, they say, 98 percent and higher

Orr emphasized this point at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in May when asked a question about his restructuring proposal for the city, and if it risked falling apart if Detroit’s population fell to 600,000 or lower. (Orr’s plan assumes Detroit’s population will bottom out at 625,000.) Orr told Metro Times he believed the projections were sound, especially considering it appeared the city’s population had shallowed. “Right now it looks like it’s going in the right direction,” he says. 

Last year, Orr moved to privatize solid waste and recycling pickup in Detroit, which ushered in a new city-wide curbside recycling program. Critics of the incinerator say the program is a positive step in the right direction for Detroit, though some contractors are requiring residents to pay for a recycling bin. In the request for proposals for solid waste, Orr, who’s currently heading up the city’s bankruptcy petition in federal court, didn’t require that waste be sent to the incinerator, Crain’s Detroit Business reports. The result is that less waste could possibly head to the facility. 

Meanwhile, Duggan has declared he will have failed as mayor unless he doesn’t stop the bleeding and reverse Detroit’s decades-long population decline.

“The single standard a mayor should be defined on is whether the population of the city is going up or down,” Duggan told the Wall Street Journal recently. Though Duggan has made numerous strides on that front, including a well-received home auction website, it’s unclear if he sees the incinerator as an obstacle to his goal. The mayor’s office didn’t return multiple requests from Metro Times for comment on this story. 

As local real estate agent Elizabeth Tintinalli puts it, the city should take the incinerator into consideration.

“To me … that’s quite serious,” she says. “As the city grows, and as other areas start to get developed — because Midtown is expensive and is expanding out — that’s definitely a concern.”

A Detroit resident who lives in Brush Park and markets homes across the city, Tintinalli says she hasn’t had a client who’s indicated the incinerator has been an issue.

“But I know, as an individual, that concerned me about a lot of [residential properties] close to that,” she says. 

Brandon Lee is another real estate agent who has marketed Midtown properties located mostly on the west side of I-75. The wind occasionally blows toward the area near Wayne State “and there can be an odor,” he says, but it hasn’t generally been an issue.

Lee says that he hasn’t previously marketed homes on the east side of the highway. That area, he says, is “significantly impacted by that incinerator.” 

 

6-WEEK BUILDUP

That’s partly why DRP should pursue new methods to processing the waste it inherits, says Schroeck, of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

DRP insists it has been, though. It’s completing a two-year plant-optimization program to enhance the performance of the fuel-processing equipment and three boilers, a company spokesperson tells Metro Times in an email.

“When these projects are completed, they will improve the reliability of the fuel processing and combustion equipment and reduce the generation of odors by minimizing the time that refuse-derived fuel is stored on site,” the spokesperson says. Since 2011, the company, which employs 260 full-time staff, has invested $50 million into the facility, and eventually hired a contractor to handle odor complaints.

Schroeck, who also teaches at Wayne State University, says the smell is so bad, and that “it goes above and beyond [what] a facility handling garbage should be allowed to [emit].”

“It has to do with how quickly they’re moving their material,” he says. “The longer the garbage sits in the open air, or in their processing room, the worse it gets.”

There was one such problem during the spring of 2012. 

According to emails between MDEQ officials DRP reps, the incinerator experienced problems with its processing equipment in May of that year. It appeared DRP was consuming more than it could chew.

“The plant had problems recently … and as a result … we were getting to the bottom of the [municipal solid waste] pile, some of which was six weeks old and odorous,” wrote then-President Maier, in a May 7, 2012, email. Maier outlined a number of the aforementioned solutions the company planned to then take. 

One MDEQ official raised concerns about that revelation; MDEQ inspector Jonathan Lamb wrote in an email with colleagues dated May 29, 2012, “[W]aste sitting for six weeks without being processed is an issue.

“I have mentioned this concern to them before, but they told me waste doesn’t sit that long so it isn’t an issue; it clearly is.”

Perhaps surprisingly, DRP doesn’t have to report how long it stores garbage, according to MDEQ inspector Joyce Zhu.

“However,” Zhu tells Metro Times, “if there’s odor issues as a result of the decomposition of long-stored garbage, they need to correct the odor problem by addressing the practice.” 

Ahmina Maxey, community outreach coordinator for Zero Waste Detroit coalition, says complaints started to pour in after the incident.

Since then, “It’s taken a long time to get where we are, which is really putting pressure on DEQ to kind of take further action,” Maxey, 28, says. Maxey’s group has been a leading force in raising awareness about the incinerator around the community. 

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” Maxey says. “It is really disgusting to have to live near, work near, or play near a facility that stinks like garbage, and not just in the immediate vicinity but stretching for blocks.”

She adds: “It’s a disincentive to the development of [the] cultural and medical district,” she says. “It’s the area of the city that’s working to attract folks to the area and also retain folks.” 

The company says it has made attempts to increase its presence in the community. In January, it hired a community relations manager. “DRP has held and actively participated in neighborhood meetings so our executives can meet with members of the community to address questions and concerns,” a spokesperson says, adding, “We proactively meet with local business leaders, elected officials, and community groups to keep them informed of our plans.”  

 

POSSIBLE FINES COMING

Eventually, by mid-2013, things didn’t look close to being resolved. The state offered the company an opportunity to strike a consent judgment to resolve the odor issue. 

“The company wasn’t adequately addressing or resolving the odor complaints and so a decision was made to escalate the case for further action,” Kovalchick says.  

That process began last August, says Kovalchick, of the MDEQ enforcement unit assigned to DRP’s case.

But initially, the decision clearly bothered DRP’s top brass.

In an email, DRP-president John Sullivan wrote to McLemore, of MDEQ’s Air Quality Division office in Detroit, he was “disappointed in the agency’s response to what has been a significant commitment on the part of DRP to resolving what has been an ongoing issue since the facility was started up in 1989.”

Sullivan cited the company’s first meeting with MDEQ in October 2011, saying his company provided a “detailed outline” on how it planned to address the odor issue.

“I stated then that the program we had embarked upon was a two-year operating plan that encompassed these goals and the establishment of functionality and reliability of the plan,” Sullivan wrote in the Aug. 26, 2013, email, later adding, “I am incredulous at the fact we are now subjected to an enforcement action before the end of the two-year plan period …

“It is with great regret therefore, that I inform you we will resist this action with all of the power that we have available to us; you have left us with little choice in the matter.”

Nevertheless, Kovalchick says he first met with the company in October and since that time, “We’ve been negotiating with the company toward formally resolving the violations.”

Crafting a consent judgment is a “difficult” process, though, Kovalchick says. He declines to say what DRP’s agreement may entail, but says such deals typically include a compliance plan and a penalty associated with it that’s usually payable within 30 days. “If the company going forward violates any of the terms of the consent judgment, they would have to pay fines on that as well,” he says. When negotiating a consent judgment, he says, a company typically “has a point of view on how they want things to resolve, and we have a point of view.”

“It’s a very long, slow process of back-and-forth negotiation to come up with something both parties can agree on,” he says.

DRP says it has a proposed plan and schedule for addressing odors at the facility to MDEQ “and is currently in the negotiation process.”

“We are confident that we will reach a mutually acceptable agreement soon.” 

In the interim, DRP says it has a second two-year plan in place to tackle the sickly scent.

“We’ve also developed a multi-year program to reduce odors that we plan to complete in mid-2016,” the DRP spokesperson says. “The plan includes minimizing the time that [municipal solid waste] and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) are stored on site and extracting air from the area where RDF is stored, sending that air to the boilers, and destroying odors in the combustion system. DRP will continue to be vigilant in exploring new technologies and practices that can help in further reducing excess odors.” 

 

‘CAN’T DO THAT’ WITH THE INCINERATOR

Back at Willis’ home in Midtown, she continues to explain why she’s upset about the incinerator, and it’s simple: Nearly three years later, the odor still periodically hangs over her neighborhood. Her job demands long shifts, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m, she says, and at the end of the day, she just wants to relax and take her dog, a lhasa-poo named Coco, for a walk. But when the garbage odor is prevalent, the smell makes a short stroll nearly impossible, she says. 

“You can’t do that, when the [incinerator] is down the street,” Willis says.

Instead, she’ll sometimes put Coco in the car, drive to Warren, and walk her there after visiting her parents.  

“Every summer, I’ve been kinda dealing with it,” Willis says. But ever since she became more proactive on the issue, Willis made it a point to call MDEQ whenever the odor returns. 

“They pretty much know me by name now,” she says of the state agency, with an infectious laugh. Now that summer has arrived, the sweltering heat has her reconsidering her living situation. Willis wants to continue living in her home, but she, like many others, just want the lingering smell to evaporate.

“I feel like a prisoner, like I can’t leave sometimes,” she says. “I don’t know if I could do another summer of this.”

Even though the company is currently working out the consent deal with the state, it’s still maintained in recent documents that other facilities nearby could be the source of the Midtown garbage odor, something Willis called Detroit’s “Big Secret.” 

“As noted previously … several industrial operations in this area produce odors that are noticeable downwind and in areas where DRP has been accused of causing odors,” DRP President John Sullivan wrote in a May 30 letter to MDEQ. Waste Management has a Detroit location around the corner, as does the Environmental Quality-Detroit firm, a hazardous treatment company that handles sludges and chemicals. 

That may be so, says Kovalchick, the MDEQ enforcement unit member. He says he has no doubt there’s other sources of odor in the vicinity.

But, Kovalchick says, in the case of Detroit’s incinerator, “I don’t think there’s much question.” 

Detroit Renewable Power will host a town hall meeting on Thursday, July 10, at Plymouth United Church of Christ, 600 E. Warren Ave., Detroit. It’s expected to run from 6 to 8 p.m.

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