Dump the incinerator

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Dump the incinerator

Postby Wilberforce » Sun Apr 20, 2008 10:16 am

Dump the incinerator
Detroit should pursue smarter, cleaner alternatives for trash disposal
Detroit Free Press Editorial / April 20, 2008

After 20 long, expensive years, Detroit's trash-to-energy incinerator will soon stop burning city taxpayers
for the payback on the bonds that were sold to build it. This turning point, however, does not merit the city
staying in the incineration business.

This is not a clean case, either economically or environmentally. If the city switches to landfilling its trash,
tipping fees could soar in the future, and fuel costs for trucking the trash out of town will surely continue
to rise. The air-quality benefit of ending smelly incinerator emissions may be more than counterbalanced
by diesel fumes from the trucks heading for the landfills.

But the best-case scenario for thrifty operations at the incinerator relies on too many factors going exactly
right: good market prices for the steam and electricity the incinerator generates, agreements with lots of
surrounding municipalities to send their trash to be burned, closely contained costs for known maintenance
needs, and so on.

Furthermore, whether the city recycles, beyond the few drop-off sites now open to Detroit residents, may
hang in the balance. A report done for the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which oversees
the incinerator, suggests that recycling will play a bigger role in the city's future regardless of whether
Detroit burns or buries its trash.

The strong curbside recycling program that Detroiters deserve and the environment needs would also
mean the city needs even more partners-in-trash to keep the incinerator operating. Already, more than
half the trash burned in Detroit comes from private waste haulers serving other communities, so the
incinerator can reach full capacity and fulfill its contracts to make steam and electricity.

A burn-free future

The debate over the incinerator must take place now, because deadlines are quickly approaching, on
June 1 and July 1, that could decide its fate. Chiefly, the city must start notifying an intermeshed set of
owners, operators, customers and regulators whether it wants to buy back the incinerator or keep it
going through current or other arrangements.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said last week that the administration is still debating how to proceed.
Negotiations over pricing for steam, a major factor in a potential purchase plan, continue.

Meanwhile, the City Council has voted 5-3 to base its budget decisions for the next fiscal year on moving
away from incinerator use. Council member JoAnn Watson, who has long fought the incinerator, said the
groups that have come together on this issue are "the most diverse coalition" she has ever seen.

Detroit has paid a steep price -- as have several other cities -- for placing all its bets back in the 1980s on
burning trash. That was a period when landfill space looked increasingly expensive, because of changing
regulations. Instead, Michigan's private landfills expanded dramatically and prices dropped, to the point
that the state has become a garbage magnet for cities from afar, most notably Toronto.

The city's taxpayers will come out from under the burden of bond payments for the incinerator in the next
fiscal year. The final $90-million payment will allow the city to examine all its options free of what has
been a huge financial obligation.

The pluses of recycling

The first choice should be a strong recycling program.

Currently, Detroit recycles only about 8% of its residential trash. That includes yard clippings sent for
composting and the metal recovered from garbage at the incinerator, which means individual recycling
efforts are minimal.

But the city has an unexpected advantage in falling so far behind. Detroit can leapfrog many of the
awkward steps other cities endured en route to comprehensive curbside recycling. Trucks can now pick up
big containers full of unsorted recyclables in the same way Detroiters' regular trash gets whisked away.

Recycling also creates jobs, for pickup and in the yards where recyclables are sorted. With the prospect of
a huge stream of raw materials coming from the city, other companies might set up shop to use them.

The second step would be bidding out disposal of the city's remaining trash.

The downsides

If the city doesn't purchase the incinerator, the current owners could continue to run it or sell it off. In that
case, Detroit is contractually bound to send its trash there for burning -- if the incinerator owner matches
or undercuts the lowest bid Detroit gets for trash disposal. But that scenario is extremely unlikely,
considering how awash Michigan is in landfill space.

There are a thicket of other complications if Detroit backs away from the incinerator, including contracts
for steam and electricity with DTE and eventually with Detroit Thermal, the company that now operates
the downtown steam loop.

DTE prefers that the incinerator continue to operate, especially if its electricity can qualify as renewable
energy under a state alternative energy program. But if it's really crucial to DTE, the utility can put in an
offer for the incinerator and assume the risks involved.

The City of Detroit is not in the landfill business -- although zoning a big vacant industrial tract for a landfill
might be something to consider -- and it should not be in the incinerator business. Detroiters deserve to
breathe easy at last about the load the incinerator has put on them and the air they breathe.

Dump the incinerator
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