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Detroit incinerator announces it will permanently shut down

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The company that owns and operates Detroit’s massive trash incinerator abruptly announced Wednesday that it’s closing down the facility.

The controversial incinerator is near the I-75/I-94 interchange on the city’s near east side, adjacent to the Midtown area. It’s been operating for three decades, though never without controversy.

Residents have complained about the odor for years, while nearby neighborhoods suffered from high incidences of asthma. The incinerator was under two state consent agreements with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality—one for odor violations, the other for reported emissions standards violations.

In January, environmental groups threatened to suethe facility if it didn’t clean up its act. A letter of intent to sue listed hundreds of occasions in which the incinerator was alleged to have violated its state permit that sets limits on carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Detroit Renewable Energy CEO Todd Grzech told the Detroit Free Press that the shutdown would happen this week, and be permanent; however, it could take 60-90 days to fully power down. Grzech said the decision to shut down was driven by both financial and community concerns.

Detroit Renewable Energy has owned and operated the incinerator since 2017.

Sandra Turner-Handy is with the Michigan Environmental Council and the group Zero Waste Detroit. She professed to be “ecstatic” about the shutdown, which community and environmental justice advocates have pushed for years.

“I danced today, but we need to get to work tomorrow, because now what do we do with the trash? We do not have a solid waste management policy in place,” Turner-Handy said.

In a statement, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the city’s “trash contract with Detroit Renewable Energy will be transferred to another company and our rates are locked in through the remainder of the contract, therefore, we expect there will be no added costs to taxpayers.” That contract had been set to expire in 2021.

The city built the incinerator in the 1980s, and still owns the land where it sits. Duggan said that means it “will soon have the ability to influence the future use of this property.”

“As far as future use of this site, it is my strong preference that this site never again be used as a waste incinerator,” he said. “We will be pursuing our legal options to make sure this remains the case."

The incinerator also burned waste from a number of suburban communities, including Warren.

Warren Mayor James Fouts says the city became aware last week that a shutdown was imminent, though it wasn’t sure if the closure would be temporary or permanent.

“I believe there were about $140 million in needed repairs, and apparently the parent company said it wasn’t worth the financial expenditure to do that,” Fouts said.

Fouts said Warren moved quickly to find a solution, and has found a new waste management company that will landfill the city’s trash under the terms of its contract with Detroit Renewable Energy.

“This should be a wake-up all for all cities that you cannot assume that any type of incineration or whatever deal you have is permanent, because all of these deals are basically short notice,” Fouts said.

The incinerator was a “waste-to-energy facility” that provided power to much of Detroit’s downtown and Midtown areas through a steam loop. Detroit Renewable Energy says it will continue to provide that power from its subsidiary Detroit Thermal through natural gas.

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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