What’s The Problem With The Detroit Incinerator?

BY ON September 20, 2013

Wibke Heymach discussing Detroit Incinerator at a community meeting.

This presentation addressing the Detroit Incinerator was presented by MCAF Michigan Field Manager, Wibke Heymach at a community meeting on Tuesday, September 17, 2013:

I am here today representing Moms Clean Air Force (MCAF). We are a non-profit bipartisan organization that seeks to protect the Clean Air Act. As an organization we have been present in Michigan for 18 months, and have given voice to parents, grandparents, guardians, care takers and anyone that seeks to protect children’s health from issues of air pollution. In Michigan, we are working on federal issues as well as state and local issues of air pollution, including the ongoing travesty that has been the Detroit Incinerator.

Often we face the problem of alerting communities to the urgency of an issue as air pollution seldom is visible. Often what we cannot see or perceive through other sensory means does not exist for us, or is harder to grasp. This however has never been a problem with the Detroit Incinerator. The community has been affected notably for years and has been alerted to the problem by the bad odor they have to suffer through frequently.

This high frequency of complaints to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) Air Quality Division has resulted in Detroit Renewable Power (DRP) receiving 6 odor violations of Rule 901 in 2011-12. Currently DRP is out of compliance with Rule 901 (901 violation is for emitting air contaminants that cause an unreasonable interference in the comfortable enjoyment of life and property). These odor violations generally occur during warm months from May through September. These odor violations are still unresolved with the MDEQ.

I want to lead this presentation with a caveat. While what is generated at the Incinerator is referred to as Detroit Renewable Energy, it is not what we look at as clean renewable energy that would be derived from wind, solar and hydro sources. This renewable energy being used here is in fact, as many, if not all of you know, generated by burning trash. The Detroit Department of Public Works’ 2012 Annual Recycling Report states that, currently, the city of Detroit recycles just under 7% of their waste. The remainders of materials, many of which are recyclable, are sent to Detroit Renewable Power to be burned. Woman and young girl discussing Detroit Incinerator

The Detroit Incinerator contributes to a poor quality of life for those living around the facility, as many present here can attest. Foul odors prevent residents from enjoying the outdoors during the warmer months. The Michigan DEQ states that since Detroit Renewable Power took over ownership of the facility in 2010, complaints of foul odors to MDEQ have increased precipitously. From only 3-4 complaints to MDEQ under the previous owner Covanta Energy in 2008 – 2009, complaints under Detroit Renewable Power have increased to 16 in 2010, 57 in 2011, and 119 in 2012. According to 2008 data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Detroit Renewable Power is ranked 7th highest in Wayne County for lead emissions, and 11th for mercury emissions. Mercury is a neurotoxin that impairs motor, sensory, and cognitive functions, and lead exposure can contribute to neurological disorders in children.

Let’s talk about mercury in more detail. Mercury is a natural chemical element, highly poisonous to both people and wildlife. Over 400,000 newborns are affected by mercury pollution every year and mercury can impair the growth of the brain in ways that interfere with learning and thinking. People keep talking about mercury as natural, but that statement is misleading. Unlike some heavy elements, such as zinc and copper, mercury has no biological use. Each and every atom of mercury is toxic. All living cells have to deploy complex mechanisms to protect themselves against it, and when the protective mechanisms fail, results are dramatic.

Mercury’s main target organ is the brain and it adversely affects the function and development of the central nervous system. It also affects heart, kidneys, lungs, muscles, reproductive and digestive organs, and our genetic and immune system. Next time someone tells you that mercury cannot be bad for you because it is natural, remember, nature is full of toxic chemical elements. Remind that person about aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, and lead – just for starters. Lots of natural things are toxic, if the dose is high enough. But with mercury, the toxic dose is tiny. When you breathe in mercury vapors most (about 80%) of the mercury enters your bloodstream directly from your lungs, and then rapidly goes to other parts of your body, including the brain and kidneys. Once in your body, metallic mercury can stay for weeks or months.

When metallic mercury enters the brain, it is readily converted to an inorganic form and is “trapped” in the brain for a long time. Metallic mercury in the blood of a pregnant woman can enter her developing child. Most of the metallic mercury will accumulate in your kidneys, but some metallic mercury can also accumulate in the brain. Most of the metallic mercury absorbed into the body eventually leaves in the urine and feces, while smaller amounts leave the body in the exhaled breath.

According to 2008 EPA data, Detroit Renewable Power is the 5th highest emitter of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in Wayne County, an essential ingredient of ozone. Currently Wayne County is in non-attainment for ozone, and ozone is a major contributor to asthma. More than 30,000 children and 700,000 adults suffer from asthma in Michigan, which costs us $394 million in medical bills per year. Asthma is a disease for which rates of hospitalization in Detroit are three times higher than that of Michigan as a whole. The Ozone Action Days last year were at a record high in Michigan–preventing children, especially those plagued with asthma, to play outside while they were in effect.

So what can you do? I do not want to just throw all those facts at you and leave your worried with no way to turn. Well, this is a start: have a conversation with your community, come together and seek action to improve the quality of life for you and your children. Further, continue to call in with complaints so that the pressure on Detroit Renewable Power rises until they can no longer ignore the issue. For that to happen, sign up with an organization, such as ours or Zero Waste Detroit to make your voice heard. We are happy to be your spokesperson and to give your voice volume, through community meetings, letters to the editor and opinion pieces in newspapers and by talking with you to your local and State Representatives.

CLICK HERE to watch a video of Wibke’s statement.


TOPICS: Air Pollution, Asthma, Clean Air Act, Mercury Poisoning, Michigan