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Groups threaten to sue Detroit incinerator over emissions violations

The Detroit incinerator
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
The Detroit incinerator

Citizen environmental groups are planning to sue Detroit’s incinerator over alleged repeated emissions violations if the facility doesn’t clean up its act.

The groups are Environment Michigan and the Ecology Center. They plan to file an allowed citizen-initiated lawsuit under the federal Clean Air Act.

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center sent a 60-day notice on behalf of the groups to the incinerator’s owner, Detroit Renewable Energy, on Tuesday. That notice is required under the Clean Air Act provisions.

The Detroit incinerator burns garbage to create steam and electricity. The resulting steam loop powers the city’s downtown and Midtown areas. It’s the largest municipal incinerator in Michigan, and one of the largest in the nation.

The letter lists hundreds of occasions in which the incinerator is alleged to have violated its state permit that sets limits on carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

“The Citizen Groups believe that the nature and extent of the carbon monoxide violations are indicative of incomplete combustion, which leads to increased emission of other harmful pollutants that are not monitored on a frequent basis,” Great Lakes Environmental Law Center Executive Director Nicholas Leonard wrote in the letter.

Those pollutants include carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde, says Environment Michigan state director Nathan Murphy. Nitrogen oxide itself also contributes to ground-level ozone and smog.

Murphy says the 60-day notice gives the incinerator time to come to the table with proposed fixes. “If [our] concerns have not been adequately addressed, then we can go ahead and file the lawsuit,” he said.

“Primarily, what we’re interested in is getting them to remain in compliance and not be emitting pollutants above their permits. So if they could come to us with a plan that says here’s the engineering fixes that will solve the problems that we’ve been having, that’s a discussion we can have.”

The groups say that in the past, state enforcement actions against the incinerator have mostly focused on odor violations. But they maintain emissions also have a direct impact on human health and quality of life in nearby neighborhoods.

“It’s time for the incinerator to clean up its act and be a good neighbor,” Murphy said.

The letter requests a meeting within 45 days with incinerator operators and officials from Detroit Renewable Power, the company that directly runs the incinerator under Detroit Renewable Energy’s corporate umbrella. A spokesperson for Detroit Renewable Energy could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that carbon monoxide itself contributes to ground-level ozone and smog. That was a typo - the sentence should have said: Nitrogen oxide itself also contributes to ground-level ozone and smog. It has been corrected above.  

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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