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Clearing the air



For the coalition of environmentalists who have been working to both increase Detroit's recycling efforts and close down the city's municipal trash incinerator, Friday was a good news/bad news sort of day.

We'll start with the bad news:

Despite what the Kilpatrick administration said just one month ago, purchase of the incinerator is still an option.

The Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA) — the agency responsible for disposal of the city's trash — last month informed the owners and operator of the waste-to-energy facility that it will stop leasing the plant and has no intent to buy it.

But what seemed like an absolute position really isn't. The option to purchase remains open, and would still be considered if the right deal presents itself, Cathy Square, the new head of the GDRRA board, said Friday.

Square, the city's chief operating officer and formerly the board's vice president, replaced Anthony Adams as board chairman. Adams recently left his job as deputy mayor to become interim head of the city's Department of Water & Sewerage. The mayor appoints members of the GDRRA board.

When Adams announced at a City Council meeting last month that the city had decided to neither purchase nor lease the facility, it certainly sounded like the decisions were final.

Asked at the time if the administration's decision was because the incinerator couldn't be purchased at a price it considered acceptable, or because of council's opposition to a purchase, Adams replied that Team Kilpatrick's decision was motivated by a desire to "move toward a greener Detroit."

A press release issued by Kwame Kilpatrick's office quoted the mayor saying:

"We will not exercise the option to purchase the waste-to-energy facility. The proposed purchase price was beyond what the city was prepared to pay. We believe the move toward recycling, creating a greener city will benefit our city in the long run."

However, when pressed by Metro Times following last Friday's GDRRA meeting, Square confirmed that the option to purchase remained open and that the administration was not going to "close our minds to anything."

Environmentalists seeking closure of the facility realize that their fight isn't over, despite a City Council resolution earlier this year declaring its desire to see all ties with the incinerator severed.

"We're still in the trenches," said Sierra Club member Anna Holden, who has been keeping a close watch on GDRRA for two decades.

City Council member JoAnn Watson, who has led the push to close the incinerator, said Monday she wasn't surprised by Square's disclosure. Watson said she didn't "completely trust" that the administration was committed to closing the incinerator.

"The battle's not over," she said. "We have to keep organizing against it."

Aside from a still-possible purchase, there's another way the facility, located at the juncture of interstates 75 and 94, could remain operating. The facility's owners (Energy Investors Fund of Boston and GE Capital, a division of corporate giant General Electric) and the plant's operator (a subsidiary of Covanta) retain the option of continuing to burn Detroit's trash — producing steam and electricity in the process — if they can meet or beat the best landfill price the city is able to negotiate.

A second round of negotiations is under way with landfill operators, reported GDRRA Executive Director John Prymack. Adams previously said the first round of bids came in at a level that the incinerator owners would probably be able to match.

At this point, said Prymack, GDRRA is letting the landfills show their "creativity." When asked by Square if that meant the discussions taking place were driving down the potential price of landfilling Detroit's trash, Prymack said yes.

The second round of discussions is expected to conclude this week. Once the rates are in hand, said Square, the onus will be on the plant's owners and operator to decide whether they can compete economically with landfills.

"As soon as we have the numbers ..." said Square, "the ball is in their court."

Another ball that continues to be juggled involves $25 million in city money held in an escrow account maintained by Detroit Edison. The money serves as a kind of insurance that guarantees Edison will be compensated for losses should GDRRA fail to supply electricity to the utility for the length of its contract, which extends to 2024.

The city is trying to get out of the deal, and has been negotiating with Edison in an attempt to gain early release of the money. Although the utility has shown a willingness to work with the city on the issue, actually getting it to turn over the money by July of next year, when the city — at least in theory — could sever all ties with the incinerator, isn't expected to be easy.

"It will be like armed combat," is how Square put it.

These are only some of the issues she will be dealing with as the incinerator's fate gets decided.

"This story," Square said, "is like an octopus."

As for the good news, Square indicated that the administration is fully committed to moving forward on a council-mandated plan to increase recycling in the city. Detroit, which has a recycling rate of only about 8 percent, is the largest city in America without a curbside recycling program. Some other large municipalities are achieving recycling rates of 50 percent or even 60 percent of their waste streams.

The council budgeted $3.8 million to pay for a pilot curbside program in Detroit. How fast that will happen remains an open question. "We're not sure we'll have it up and running by Jan. 1," Square reported.

When it is up and running, the program will initially serve between 25,000 and 30,000 households in select neighborhoods throughout the city. Environmentalists were encouraged to hear Square say she was interested in exploring "incentive" programs — such as issuing coupons to residents based on the amount of material that's recycled — as a way to boost participation. Saying she agreed that such programs can be effective, Square told a group of environmentalists crowded into the small conference room where the meeting was held, that "we are looking into" those types of programs.

But the city isn't waiting for curbside service as it attempts to boost recycling rates. At Friday's meeting, the GDRRA board extended for one year a contract with Recycle Here, which runs drop-off programs at various sites in the city (go to for specific information).

Square showed that she has an eye for detail as well as the big picture when she asked Matt Naimi, who runs Recycle Here, to make changes to the bee logo designed by popular local artist Carl Oxley. Square had a problem with arrows encircling the bee's abdomen, saying that they didn't conform with the traditional recycling symbol, causing confusion.

Naimi said he'd work with the artist to make changes.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or

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