Detroit incinerator often exceeds pollution limits, rarely fined by state

DETROIT (WXYZ) -

The mammoth trash incinerator located in Detroit’s midtown frequently exceeds pollution limits, but is seldom fined by the Department of Environmental Quality.

“It’s a stink, it’s a horrendous stink,” said Janas Dillon, who’s lived near the incinerator for years. “I’m hoping that they would close it down and move it to an isolated area.”

But since 1989, the incinerator has stood at the corner of Russell and Ferry, with school children, families and an entire community in the shadow of its smokestack.

“The smells can be really strong,” said Melisa Cooper Sargent, a director at the Ecology Center, an environmental group in Ann Arbor, and a nearby resident. 

We met up with her at a neighborhood meeting where residents said their biggest concern isn’t just a smell.  

“It’s the chemicals that are coming out,” she said. “Things like particulate matter, which are little tiny bits of debris, could be even metals that are so tiny that they could get into your bloodstream, get into your lungs. We know there’s a link with that and heart disease and asthma.”

In Detroit, asthma sends people to the hospital at a rate more than three-times the state average. And children can be hit the hardest

“Up and down the block, there’s children with asthma, “ said Kinga Osz-Kemp, who lives nearby. “My daughter has asthma for example. That worries me, and I always wonder if we didn’t live here, would she still have asthma?”

Chris Ethridge, a manager for the state’s air quality division, says the Department of Environmental Quality is aggressively policing facilities like Detroit Renewable Power’s incinerator.

“I can tell you we spend a lot of man hours doing complaint investigation, holding public hearings, interacting with the community,” he said.

A report released this year by the environmental group Breathe Free Detroit revealed that, between 2013 and 2017, the incinerator exceeded emission limits nearly 800 times.

But Detroit Renewable Power was cited for only 8 emission exceedances, for a total of $149,000.

The DEQ says they weren’t cited for more because they can only fine companies for emissions that occur at certain times of the day; for example, those that happen when the incinerator is starting up or shutting down are off the table.

But Ethridge admits that there are times where the facility could be fined, where the state choose not to.

Facilities aren’t allowed to pump out too much carbon monoxide for more than an hour. But the state chooses to only issue fines if the pollution lasts longer than 2 hours.

“There are violations you don’t fine for,” said Channel 7’s Ross Jones. “Why not fine them for every single violation?”

“That, again comes back to the guidance and procedures that we follow,” Ethridge responded.

“But you enforce the procedures. They’re your procedures,” Jones said.

“Right,” Ethridge said. “And I would say that we’ve been doing that.”

Detroit Renewable Energy COO Michael Marr says residents should view the facility as a benefit, employing 130 men and women and producing enough energy through steam to power 60,000 houses.

“We’re trying to be a better neighbor,” he said, stressing that the company is investing in its facility to lessen emission violations.

Residents will believe it when they see it, or in this case, smell it. A good start, they say, would be if the incinerator followed all the rules and the state enforced them.  

“Can you please consider the fact that we have asthma up and down our block?” asked Osz-Kemp.  “Can you please keep them to stick to their limits of pollution?”

On Friday, the same day WXYZ spoke with the DEQ, the state announced it was fining the incinerator $55,000 for odor violations—something residents say is long overdue. But fines over emission violations—the ones that can harm our health—have been much smaller: only $3,000 since last year.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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