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Burning issue



With Detroit City Councilmember JoAnn Watson taking the lead, a who's who list of metro area environmentalists gathered last week to talk trash. In a public hearing called by Watson, attention was focused on the Resource Recovery Facility at the corner of Russell Street and Ferry Avenue on Detroit's east side. It is there that Detroit's trash — the vast majority of it, anyway — is incinerated. Part of the process includes the generation of steam and electricity, which are sold to Detroit Edison.

The incinerator has long been a concern for environmentalists. Although no direct connection has been proved, a map passed out at the public hearing shows higher concentrations of asthma sufferers clustered around the facility than in most other areas of Detroit.

The facility is owned by Phillip Morris Capital Corp. (a subsidiary of the parent company that owns the Phillip Morris tobacco company, maker of Marlboro and other cigarette brands) and General Electric Capital Corp. The facility is operated by another private corporation, Michigan Waste Energy, itself a subsidiary of Covanta Energy. Overseeing all this is the quasi-public Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, whose board members are appointed by Detroit's mayor.

The reason for the public hearing convened by Watson last Thursday is that there's currently a window of opportunity for Detroit to radically alter how it deals with its trash.

The city's lease agreement with the facility expires in the summor of '09, but a decision regarding future use must be submitted by July 1 of this year. Options include continuing to lease the facility, buying it or seeking other ways to handle our refuse.

The environmentalists and community activists attending the public hearing would like to see us turn away from burning trash. In their eyes, the ideal would be to ramp up recycling in a big way — an effort even proponents admit will take time to achieve — with waste that's not recycled sent to landfills.

Sorting out the costs of various options is complicated business. But some of the experts at the public hearing made the argument that recycling can be not just financially feasible but an economic stimulant that produces far more jobs than incineration.

But the economics of this issue can be complicated. And, as Watson pointed out, quick action needs to be taken to produce a detailed alternative plan if there's any hope of convincing decision makers to seek what proponents say is a greener alternative to incineration.

In other words, the situation is still very much in flux.

But Watson and her allies are convinced of this much: The status quo won't change without a massive show of public support for an alternative approach.

Time is not on the side of activists, however. There is much work to be done over the next few months if they are going to bring about change.

The first step is getting word out that the issue is on the table, and getting people to realize how important this all is to the city's future.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or

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