The City of Detroit’s garbage incinerator - the largest trash incinerator in the world - has long been a scourge of local residents and environmental justice groups. It burns nearly 800,000 tons of trash per year, emitting hazardous air pollutants including mercury, lead, and dioxins. Asthma hospitalization rates in Detroit are over three times the average rate of the state of Michigan. In part due to the incinerator, Detroit is the only city of the 30 largest cities in the United States without any significant curbside recycling program (a pilot program was recently launched, and hopefully will be expanded soon). For the full scoop on the incinerator – and the citizens working for a better solution – check out Curt Guyette’s Detroit Metro Times article and the Ecology Center’s many resources and videos.
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is now urging the City of Detroit to consider another reason to close down the incinerator and move to more modern waste management practices (download comment letter to Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr.). Based on data provided by the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (which manages the incinerator) and U.S. EPA estimates for CO2 emissions, the facility could be responsible for as much as 750,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Essentially, an incinerator does the opposite of carbon sequestration – it takes garbage containing tons of carbon, burns it, and releases the carbon into the atmosphere. Pound for pound, burning municipal solid waste emits more CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity than burning coal.
As Obama’s EPA moves forward with steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act and Congress moves forward with the the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), emitting significant quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases will soon become a legal and fiscal liability. Strict application of the Clean Air Act could (and should) impose huge regulatory costs on the incinerator’s CO2 emissions. Even under a more flexible cap and trade system, the City of Detroit would need to purchase credits for as much as 750,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. If those credits cost $10 per ton (a reasonable estimate), operating the incinerator will cost the City of Detroit an extra $7,500,000 per year.
The solution is clear. Detroit’s City Council has endorsed a proposal by a broad coalition of community organizations – environmental, civil rights, health, labor, faith-based and social service advocates – for a New Business Model for Solid Waste Management in Detroit. The City Council will soon be voting on a budget and taking other action on the incinerator’s future. If City Council takes into account the cost of CO2 emissions, closing down the incinerator makes sense for both the environment and the City’s budget.