The Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility, renamed Detroit Renewable Power, is the largest solid waste incinerator in the United States. Owned by Atlas Holdings, LLC, it is one of the most iconic environmental and social justice fights in the U.S. today. The incinerator is deeply implicated in Detroit's budget crisis as well.
It was sold in 1991 to private investors to pay off city debt, and although the city no longer owned the incinerator citizens were forced to continue paying bonds owed on it. In total Detroit’s residents have paid over $1.2 billion in debt because of the incinerator (zerowastedetroit.org). One of the main problems with this incinerator is how grossly oversized it is. Detroit has to burn trash from other cities to continue burning near capacity.
During the last years of the debt obligation (which ended in 2009), private haulers were charged as little as $13 per ton, while Detroit residents have been charged $150 per ton or more (ecologycenter.org).
The incinerator is one of the worst polluters in Wayne County for criteria pollutants. Particulate matter emissions contribute to Detroit's high asthma hospitalization rate for children, at three times the state average. In 2010 the incinerator was bought and renamed Detroit Renewable Energy in an effort to "green wash" the facility although it remains a toxic, polluting facility. The Michigan Dept of Environmental Quality (DEQ) states that since Detroit Renewable Power took over ownership of the facility in 2010, complaints of foul odors to MDEQ have increased precipitously.
Since it purchased the facility, Detroit Renewable Power has received 13 notices of odor violation and was tasked with making repairs to their facility to eliminate the extreme odor (zerowastedetroit.org).
According to the 2010 Census, this zip code (48201) is 70% African American (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census Summary Profile. QT-P3), about 20% are unemployed (Source: 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates DP03) and 52% are below poverty level (Source: 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates).
While the incinerator does reduce trash burden on landfills by incinerating garbage at temperatures exceeding 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, this comes at a cost.
Foul odor and emissions from the plant, causing many health problems including high asthma rates in children, that result from incineration, as well as extremely high economic costs to residents, have created a disproportionate negative impacts on the surrounding communities. In the fall of 2006, ten community and environmental groups came together in The Coalition for a New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste: Sierra Club Southeast Michigan Group, Rosedale Recycles, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit, Sierra Club Environmental Justice, Ann Arbor's Ecology Center, Michigan Environmental Council, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Recycle Detroit.
In 2010, the coalition changed its name to Zero Waste Detroit. In 2008, the Coalition began working on the New Business Model for Solid Waste Management to emphasize waste reduction, with an intermediate use of landfills, toward a goal of zero waste. Although the incinerator was built and continues to operate, the City of Detroit recently (in November of 2013) announced that under privatized collection, a citywide curbside recycling program will be available which has the potential to reduce pollution burden of the city and provide more jobs. The next step is to ramp up residential recycling and then commercial recycling, so that the incinerator does not have adequate trash to sustain operations.
Between 2015-2017, the incinerator violated the Clean Air Act over 370 times with its toxic emissions of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and excess odor above the legally allowed limits. Despite organizing efforts by Breathe Free Detroit and legal action by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the MDEQ only fined Detroit Renewable Power for 6 violations for a total of $149,000. As of early 2017, health impacts from the incinerator have cost the city of Detroit $2.6 million (Ecology Center 2017).
While the incinerator continues to operate, community leaders are active in the fight for justice. In addition to city-wide waste reduction and zero waste efforts, potential pathways leaders are pursuing to shutting down the incinerator include pressuring the city to adopt stricter greenhouse gas emissions and advocating for the city to stop renewing its contract with the facility.