Detroit Shall Burn No More! Incinerator Fight Heats Up

May 31, 2011

“Detroit Shall Burn No More!” Incinerator Fight Heats Up
By Jeff Conant
On the final day of the 2010 United States Social Forum scores of local activists and several hundred of their allies from across the country held a series of rallies targeted at the city’s municipal waste incinerator. The Social Forum had chosen Detroit because the city represents all the vast failures of corporate industrialism and immense possi- bilities for renewal. The closure of the incinerator four months later, temporary though it may be, showed the prescience of the Forum in its choice of target.
Given the wide range of themes discussed at the forum—from immigration to gender to militarism to media justice—and the broad set of issues facing Detroit—from evictions to utility shutoffs to unem- ployment rates of up to 50 percent—the focus on the waste incinerator for the forum’s closing action was significant.
As the marchers made their way through the nearly vacant neighborhoods of this once thriving metropolis, one chant evoked a complex web of memories. To locals, “Detroit shall burn no more!” brought to mind the 1967 race riots that resulted in thousands of buildings being burned, as well as the inner city arson incidents of the eighties, when prop- erty owners would burn down their unmarketable homes for insurance under cover of Devil’s Night (the night before Halloween). This time around, however, the metaphor served to connote the burning of waste and rising global temperatures.
A Fiery Symbol of Despair
A remnant of industrial development that should have been relegated to oblivion long ago, the Detroit municipal waste incinerator serves as a clear example of the ways in which emitters of point-source pollu- tion target low-income neighborhoods and commu- nities of color. It is also a classic target for the growing climate justice movement. Speaking at the rally, City Council Member Joanna Watson admitted that there is no more important issue facing Detroit.
Indeed, the fight over the incinerator—the largest such facility in the country, owned by Covanta, the world’s largest incinerator company—is one of the most iconic environmental and social justice fights in the U.S. today.
The word “consume” means “to destroy or use up, as by fire or disease.” So, incinerators represent the very definition of toxic and unsustainable consump- tion. They emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of electricity than even the dirtiest coal-fired power plants and the incineration process drives a climate-changing cycle of resources extracted from the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and eventually, burned. In truth, more than 90 percent of the materials disposed of in incinera- tors and landfills could be reused, recycled, and com- posted, creating both jobs and community resilience.
Like every other incinerator in existence, the Detroit facility stands squarely in the way of green jobs, vibrant communities, and environmental justice—a fact evidenced by the frontline presence of the Teamsters Union at the march and rally. The Teamsters also issued a strong statement, saying, “The facts are clear. Recycling creates six to 10 times more jobs than incinerating or landfilling. By recy- cling waste we can recover valuable materials and limit hazardous pollution.”
Paid to Pollute
When Detroit’s incinerator was proposed in the
Race, Poverty & the Environment | Fall 20101980s, it aroused strong community opposition. A group called the Evergreen Alliance organized direct actions, including blockades of the site, which led to many arrests and significant public attention. But racial tensions and the strong support enjoyed by Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, con- tributed to the failure of the mostly white Evergreen Alliance to block the plan. (Young’s administration, it later turned out, was riddled with corruption and the incinerator is just one piece of his troubled legacy.) The Alliance did succeed on a broader front, however, by raising early awareness that helped galva- nize a national movement.
Most notably, Detroit’s incinerator came with a staggering debt load. Clean air policies enacted immediately after it was built demanded the addition of costly pollution controls. And although the city sold the facility to private investors in the early 1990s, taxpayers were saddled with the construction costs. In its 20 years of operation, the incinerator has cost Detroit taxpayers over $1.1 billion; in exchange,
it generated toxic pollution causing asthma rates three times the national average.
A recent news report stated: “Detroit doesn’t just outpace the state in pollution levels. Forbes Maga- zine, analyzing EPA data, last year named the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area the second most toxic city in the nation, with 68 Superfund sites and 281 facilities releasing toxic chemicals.”1 The cumulative impact of this pollution is literally killing people.
Roland Wahl, a resident of the Oakland Heights section of greater Detroit, states: “We live in the most polluted zip code in the state. My doctor told me ‘this environment is killing you.’ People are selling their homes for as little as $300 to get out of [here].”
March organizer Sandra Turner-Handy, a commu- nity outreach director for the Michigan Environmen- tal Council said, “My granddaughter attended the Go Lightly Educational Center, right near the incin- erator. She got asthma and had to use her inhaler every single day. [But] from the time she left there... she has not used her inhaler once.”
Detroit Says: “Give Me Your... Wretched Refuse”
To operate efficiently, the incinerator needs to burn about 800,000 tons of trash a year; and as long as the incinerator is licensed to operate, its owners must find ways to ensure a steady supply of mixed waste, by the ton. In recent years, however, because of Detroit’s drastic drop in population—from around 1.5 million in the 1980s to about 750,000 today— the amount of trash produced in the city has declined. Consequently, the city has had to import trash from its more affluent neighbors.
Pending the incinerator’s permanent shutdown, Detroit’s inner city residents pay up to $150 a ton to
(Top) After the U.S. Social Forum people march on the Detroit in- cinerator, the largest in the world.
(Bottom) Mother Na- ture collapses due to toxic incinerator emis- sions.
©2010 Orin Langelle/GJEP
Race, Poverty & the Environment | Fall 2010
Environmental and Climate Justice
import garbage from wealthier areas so that the incin- erator can burn its daily quota of 2,858 tons of garbage and release its annual allowed quota of up to 2,251 tons of regulated pollutants.
Not surprisingly, the incinerator is deeply impli- cated in Detroit’s budget crisis as well. According to Brad van Guilder of the Detroit Ecology Center, “[The] facility has brought Detroit to its knees three times... first in 1991, when the scrubbers had to be added. [Next], when the city sold the facility to a private consortium—it was valued at $643 million, but Detroit received only $54 million. The majority of the funds were actually borrowed from the city, and had to be paid back over the next 20 years.”
The third instance is the crisis occurring right now: Detroit’s contract with the facility’s owners has expired but closing the incinerator now could cost the city more in the short-term than keeping it open. That’s because the incinerator is a Waste to Energy (WTE) facility, meaning heat from burning trash is used to generate electricity, which is sold to Detroit Edison, the local power utility, which in turn sells it to the city. Detroit Edison’s city contract stipulates that even if supply from the incinerator stops, the utility is guaranteed payment through 2024.
WTE or the Great Carbon Boondoggle
Incinerators have long been a key target of envi- ronmental justice struggles in the U.S.—with great success. Massive public opposition and community advocacy have led to a tremendous rise in alternative waste reduction practices, such as recycling and com- posting, over the past several decades preventing any new incinerators from being built since 1997. In response, the waste industry has taken to promoting
the dubious “Waste to Energy” idea, using misleading claims about burning trash offering a “clean energy source.” Actually, it is an absurdly inefficient source of energy because incinerated waste includes a large percentage of organics.
Incineration is based on the false assumption that there is a large, nonhazardous portion of the waste stream that cannot be avoided through source-reduc- tion and cannot be reused, recycled, or composted. In truth, most municipal waste can be recycled except for hazardous materials, such as PVC, batter- ies, and electronics—precisely those that are the most hazardous to burn.
“We need to get trash out of the renewable portfo- lio standard entirely,” says Brad van Guilder of the Ecology Center. “The Obama administration is sup- porting cap and trade, which will allow these facilities to continue. But if we allow for these cap and trade schemes, we’re going to continue to concentrate the dirtiest facilities in those neighborhoods that can least resist them.”
A healthier and more practical alternative would be the practice of zero waste—designing products and processes to minimize toxicity and waste and conserving and recovering all resources in a closed loop cycle. It would help to conserve three to five times more energy than is produced by waste inciner- ation. “We know land-filling is bad and we know incineration is bad,” says Turner-Handy, who is also a founding member of Zero Waste Detroit, a coalition of environmental organizations, community groups, and individuals working to move Detroit toward recycling. “So we need to have full materials recovery. If the city wants to save money and create jobs, they need to create a materials recovery center.”
Protesters try to con- vince "Mayor" to shut down incinerator.
©2010 Orin Langelle/GJEP
Race, Poverty & the Environment | Fall 2010
Activists drop banner adjacent to the inciner- ator during the march.
©2010 Orin Langelle/GJEP
An environmental task force set up by the Detroit City Council determined that closing the incinerator would eliminate about 50 jobs, but creating a materials recovery facility would create 123 new jobs, and an additional 300 jobs would be created through recycling-based manufacturing.
However, at present Detroit recycles only about three percent of its waste stream, as opposed to Boston (15 percent), Chicago (23 percent), and San Francisco (over 70 percent).2 According to van Guilder, the city signed a contract committing the Department of Public Works to pick up house- hold waste and bring it to the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which would then bring it to the incinerator. “It basically locked out any kind of recycling,” van Guilder points out. “You would literally be fined for hiring someone to pick up your recycling.”
An End to Smokestacks Everywhere
Recycling is widely acknowledged to be the most climate-effective waste management strategy because it reduces emissions throughout the economy, not just at the waste facility (landfill or incinerator).3 Which is why Zero Waste Detroit and the other organizers of the June 26 march and rally deter- mined to focus on “smokestacks everywhere, in the backyards of the poor,” and not merely in Detroit, according to Ananda Lee Tan, who is the U.S. and Canada coordinator for the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) and works with communities worldwide to end incineration.
“To stabilize the climate we need to stop burning oil, coal, forests, crops, and waste,” says Tan. “For most eco-conscious cultures, fire is sacred—only to be used for life-support functions like cooking food and carefully maintaining ecosystems with con- trolled burns. We need to reconsider the use of fire
in destructive processes like burning for energy.”
In October 2010 the inciner- ator abruptly ceased operations as the owners couldn’t come to terms with the buyer for their overpriced steam heat.
"This facility has never been essential to the city of Detroit. It has just been extremely costly," said van Guilder on news of the shutdown.
Now that the incinerator has been taken off line, environ- mentalists are organizing to
keep it closed and launch curbside recycling in earnest.
According to van Guilder, this is not just a local issue: “Detroit’s struggle is very important to how this plays out nationally, just like the fight of the Evergreen Alliance back in the late ‘80s. They lost the fight in Detroit, but it played out in other incinerator struggles around the country.”
“Historically there are a lot of barriers to organiz- ing different constituencies around an issue like this,” admits Tan. “The fact that frontline EJ communities and their allies from around the country were able to come together with unions to fight this incinerator shows a real shift in the political landscape.”
“Ultimately,” he adds, “it sends a signal to com- munities across the U.S. that not only can we shut down polluting industries in the backyards of the poor, but we can replace them with green jobs that have tangible benefits. This is a tremendous story that’s still unfolding.” n
1. troits_4821.html
2. press_releases.html?topic=details&ni=482
3. USEPA, Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assess- ment of Emissions and Sinks, 3rd Edition. 2006.
Jeff Conant is an independent journalist, activist, and educator, and author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency.
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Reimagine Detroit

May 9, 2011

Charity Hicks, The People’s Water Board Coalition
• Sun, May 08, 2011
By Marcus WrightSpecial to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Several hundred people gathered at Sacred Heart Church April 28 to share information and develop strategies on how to make Detroit a better place to live.

They were not politicians nor were they award-winning urban planners. They were ordinary people concerned about the city of Detroit and its residents.

The event was facilitated by the People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) and rganized during the U.S. Social Forums in June of last year. PMA’s are gatherings of people to discuss and analyze conditions, come up with strategies, commitments and visions for how to better their communities.

The overwhelming consensus at the meeting was Detroiters need to develop and execute their own plan or redesign and improve Detroit.

Charity Hicks of The People’s Water Board Coalition Detroit, explained how certain entities are attempting to take over Detroit. She told the audience a group of deep-pocket foundations got together and created a pot of money to entice Mayor Dave Bing to create the kind of Detroit they wanted.

“Bing called it ‘right sizing’ and said there would be winners and losers,” Hicks said. “The people rebelled. What you mean you gon’ shut off services to some parts of the city? We pay taxes.”

Hicks says Bing and his staff rethought their presentation.

“They hired an award-winning urban planner named Toni Griffith and a team of consultants from all over the world to tell Detroit how to become lean, mean, green and thriving but they never asked a block club president, never asked anybody who goes to a BP gas station to shop for groceries to feed their family; never asked a neighborhood association; didn’t go to any churches,” Hicks said. “They just said ‘We’re going to right size Detroit. We’re going to strategically reframe Detroit. We’re going to make Detroit work.’”

Hicks says Bing has proclaimed Detroit can’t remain as it is and he’s not telling Detroiters anything they don’t already know.

“The question is, ‘Have you asked the people what they want? Where they want to go and how they want to get there?’” Hicks said. “Our mission is to bring the people’s voice into this process that doesn’t have any transparency, democracy or accountability because those who are paying the cost are entities the people never voted to redesign and reframe the city.”

According to Hicks, Bing will present a plan sometime in June.

She says members of the Peoples Water Board Coalition are also working on a plan. “The mayor’s plan is separate from our plan. But we reserve the right to critique the mayor’s plan. It also means we have to engage our family and friends around consensus building for our plan,” Hicks said. “As people who live on those blocks and in those houses, we have a responsibility to each other.”

Maureen Taylor of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, spoke to the need to develop a common strategy. A common strategy requires a common analysis, Taylor said.

“If some of us think Santa Claus is the cause of our problem then they will go off and organize to fight Santa Claus. If some think it’s Russia that is the cause of our problem, then they will organize to fight the Russians,” Taylor said. “So, we have to see if we can arrive at a common analysis.”

Taylor explained that money was taken from working people and was supposed to be loaned back. But the money wasn’t loaned back. “Are you clear they took your money and won’t loan it back to you. Nine hundred billion dollars is a little less than a trillion. Seems like a lot of money to me,” Taylor said. “It is very important everyone in this room understand this is not a cyclical crisis.”

Taylor explained things are not going to get better. She says Detroiters are experiencing a structural realignment of capital.

Referring to local history, she says 40 years ago names like Dodge Main, Huber Road, Lynch Road, Mack Stamping, Warren Stamping, Chevrolet Gear and Axle and Ford Rouge were familiar to everyone. “Some of you here worked in those places. Some of you here have parents who worked in those places. But those places are gone,” Taylor said. “But the number of cars they make has not decreased. However, the number of workers needed to produce those cars has decreased.”

Fifty percent of all the jobs that left this country came out of this state, according to Taylor.

Taylor rhetorically asked, “What happened? Where did Snyder come from? Talking about teachers make too much money? Production workers make too much money?”

She said American Axle workers used to make $35 an hour. Now they start at $8 an hour and the highest they can go is $14 an hour.

“Why is it when working people need money none is there but we can find money for a third war. Three wars going on at the same time. Things have changed and we don’t have a book to open to see what we do now,” Taylor said. “That’s why PMAs are important. We can’t look to Bing for a plan. Dave Bing is a point guard. We can’t get the plan from a point guard, especially a point guard playing for the other side. The solution lies within the affected community. We are the affected community. Our plan has to be developed by us.”

According to Taylor, Detroiters can’t look to elected officials for help. All of them got Blue Cross Blue Shield. They can pay for gas at the gas station. The soldiers of this movement are in this room. They understand what has changed.

“The corporations have decided to take what they want and rule over us. They have decided that with enough money they can pay their politicians to create laws that make it so,” Taylor said. “What we have to do and will do is flip the script. Tell folks we will not surrender our humanity; we will not surrender our future; we will not surrender our children, we will not surrender mother earth and we will not surrender our vision. Even as they close libraries and schools we will not surrender. We will build what we need.”

After the speakers, participants formed focus groups to hammer out resolutions regarding education, food security, the environment, neighborhood stability, health and healing justice, media justice and disinvestment from Detroit Works.

Resolutions included formulating strategic planning groups for community empowerment to be held May 6, at 1264 Meldrum, 6 p.m.; May 3 4-7 p.m. meeting at Frederick Douglas school in support of Catherine Ferguson Academy; launch an education campaign around healthy food; boycott fast food and establish a moratorium on new fast food restaurants; attend the May 18-19 food summit at Eastern Market; organize an annual gathering to better communicate environmental concerns in our community; canvass community to determine needs and create citizen governance; create a database of health and healing messages with information and education; create a reality where communication is a human right; build a free, hot-mesh wireless; develop media education for youth and others, teaching to consume critically, support strategically and create with vision; identify someone who can do an audit; use alternative media strategies to uplift existing community work.

Call 313.964.0618 or 248.258.5188 or visit peoplepowerdetroit/home for more information.

Earth Day Celebrated by Reclaiming Abandoned Spaces

May 5, 2011

DETROIT -- Approximately 18 local citizens celebrated Earth Day by plating sunflower seedlings on a vacant lot next to an abandoned building in East Detroit on April 21.

The event was held at the corner of Forest and Chene where seedlings grown by Nsoroma Institute students were implanted by students from Build On and other community members in a symbolic gesture of “reclaiming abandoned spaces” as part of a ceremony of the Radical Joy for Hard Times program.

“In honor of Earth Day we wanted to commemorate the Earth and all that she does in our lives,” said Sonya Green an Environmental Community Fellow with the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. “People all over the world are taking this concept and going to places that may have been negatively affected. We go to bare witness to what has happened and then leave something beautiful behind. It’s about recalling our connectedness to the Earth, and then giving something positive back.”

Greener Schools visits Heidelberg Project

DETROIT -- Approximately 35 students from the Detroit Institute of Technology and the Detroit Community School took a guided tour of Detroit's world-renown outdoor art exhibit the Heidelberg Project on January 14 on the city's East side. The students, who are also taking part in the East Michigan Environmental Action Council's "Ugliest School Yard Competition" under the Greener School Program, not only got to see and learn the history behind the colorful array of artwork now decorating an entire block on the street for which the project was named, they also had an opportunity to meet the man whose visions inspired it all, Dr. Tyree Guyton.

"I think it was overall really great," said EMEAC's Greener Schools Program Director Elizabeth Baskerville. "Having Tyree speak was really important. I think being able to explore spaces that are in Detroit is really important. People come from all over the world to come here, and people who live here don't even know that it's here. I think there's something wrong with that."

Create Solutions for Detroit

By Patrick Geans-Ali

To give voice to the community, a coalition of local activists affiliated with some of the city’s leading community based, nonprofit organizations will convene Detroit’s first city-wide People’s Movement Assembly from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 28 at the Sacred Heart Church. The main goal of the People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) is to provide a forum for community voices to be heard, and then organize to create solutions for the concerns that are raised.

Many Detroiters feel that what has been missing from Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works Project plan to revitalize the city has been input from the people of Detroit themselves. They are asking: “Detroit Works for whom?”
“Whether you are in a block club, neighborhood group, youth program, mentorship, sorority, fraternity or even just a concerned individual, we hope that people can come into the PMA with their ideas and experiences and leave with new connections and ideas about how they can contribute to the future of grassroots Detroit,” says William Copeland of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC).

“I expect that the networks of people committed to interrogating rightsizing, building democratic processes and increasing grassroots vision of change [will grow]. We will learn more about how to communicate with Detroiters about political change and our organizing strategies will deepen and improve.”