DETROIT—National Environmental Law Center (NELC) attorneys recently sent a formal notice of violations to the companies that own and operate a sprawling municipal solid waste incinerator located in downtown Detroit, Michigan, alleging that the incinerator has been regularly violating the federal Clean Air Act and emitting harmful pollutants into surrounding neighborhoods.
The notice, sent on behalf of two statewide citizen groups, Environment Michigan and The Ecology Center, also advised Detroit Renewable Power (DRP) and its corporate affiliate that the groups intend to file suit against the companies in federal court to enforce the emission limits in the facility’s Clean Air Act permit. Citizen groups must wait 60 days after notifying the violator and state and local environmental agencies before they file suit to enforce the act.
“The Detroit incinerator burns nearly a million tons of garbage each year, and regularly fails to properly combust the waste materials fed into its burners,” explained NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka. “Incomplete combustion serves to increase the emission of hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, acrolein and formaldehyde, many of which cause cancer, from the incinerator smokestack.”
The Detroit incinerator is also a major source of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, both of which help to form ground-level ozone (smog), and sulfur dioxide, another respiratory irritant. In addition, burning municipal solid waste generates particulate matter, heavy metals, and greenhouse gases.
“More than 7,000 people live within a mile of this incinerator, which is one of the largest in the country; it has blighted their neighborhoods for decades with noxious
odors and harmful air pollutants,” said Nathan Murphy, Environment Michigan state director.
The notice of violations sent to Detroit Renewable Power alleges that the incinerator has violated emission limits for carbon monoxide more than 600 times over the past five years. The carbon monoxide violations are particularly significant because they indicate incomplete combustion of waste.
Because DRP rarely directly measures emissions of the hazardous air pollutants that are the products of incomplete combustion, strict enforcement of the carbon monoxide limit is critical to public health. And Michigan environmental regulators have consistently let these violations slide.
“Our problem with the state Department of Environmental Quality is that their enforcement actions have ignored most of the incinerator’s exceedances of air emission standards since at least 2013,” said Nicholas Leonard, a Great Lakes Environmental Law Center attorney working alongside NELC on this case.
Quality of life problems caused by the DRP incinerator have been so severe that community residents and local environmental groups have organized a campaign, known as “Breathe Free Detroit,” to address the challenges created by the presence of this polluting facility in a densely populated urban area.
NELC attorneys are preparing to help Environment Michigan and The Ecology Center take the issue to federal court, and will seek to make further headway in holding this persistent polluter accountable to the law.