Unbearable stench: Detroiters sue owner of ‘noxious’ trash incinerator

Photos by Steve Neavling
Photos by Steve Neavling

A group of Detroit residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the owner of Detroit’s trash incinerator Monday, complaining of an unbearable stench that has been increasing for the past few years.

The lawsuit against Detroit Renewable Power alleges nuisance and gross negligence violations stemming from excessive odor.


The complaint comes less than a month after the Metro Times published a cover story about the rising number of complaints against Detroit Renewable Power, which took ownership in 2010. According to the alt-weekly’s investigation, the state issued 13 violations for excessive odor and logged 114 complaints last year alone.

In 2008, the state fielded just four complaints.

The violations have prompted the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider levying fines and requiring regulatory oversight, the Metro Times investigative reporter Ryan Felton found.

The plant at Russell and I-94 incinerates more than 3,000 tons of waste a day and generates up to 70 megawatts of electricity for DTE Energy.

Monday’s lawsuit was filed by Detroit-based Macuga, Liddle & Dubin.

“On occasions too numerous to list, Plaintiffs’ property including Plaintiffs’ neighborhood, residences and yards were physically invaded by noxious odors and contaminants,” the suit reads.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Tim Burke

    What’s the Problem With the Detroit Incinerator?
    Submitted by Michigan LCV on Wed, 09/18/2013 – 10:41am
    Tags: air pollution, clean air, Clean Air Act, incinerator, MCAF
    Wibke Heymach is the State Field Manager for Moms Clean Air Force in Michigan, and she was panelist at a community meeting to address the Detroit Incinerator on Tuesday. Zero Waste Detroithosted the event. Read Wibke’s statement on how the Detroit Incinerator puts children’s health at risk, and what the community can do about it below:

    I am here today representingMoms 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.

    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.

    For further questions please do not hesitate to contact Vee personally atwibke@michiganlcv.org, or sign up with MCAF atwww.momscleanairforce.org.

  • Tim Burke

    enile delinquents are five times more likely to have been lead poisoned.
    What’s the Problem With the Detroit Incinerator? | MLCV …

  • Tim Burke

    Incineration – A Poisonous Technology and a Hoax

    It is the position of Toxic Alert that all incinerators – municipal solid waste, medical … Consumat (General Motors); Detroit – Ogden Martin (ABB); Grand Rapids …

  • tml

    I hope the reason that the question, “Why is it causing a problem (clearly more odoriferous according to reports) now?” is because everyone posting comments is caught up on the latest Metro Times article. The folks at the incinerator already said some parts of the machinery went kaput & the garbage was backlogged in wait to be burned. They finally hit the bottom of a six week old pile. They claim that was the cause of the smell. They also plan to fix it.
    Burning garbage is clearly wrong (I don’t care how much we spent on building the thing, it’s no excuse to keep using it). There are better ways to handle waste, and I’m optimistic that we humans can figure out how to properly solve this problem. The issue should be:
    Why is there a problem occurring now? Perhaps the incinerator is bad press for downtown. Perhaps someone with long term plans and great resources would like it moved. The drug dealer ‘Dotie’ (sp?) was removed when he demanded 3.5% of the concessions or he wouldn’t sell the land Comerica Park sits on today.
    To make it clear, I don’t favor drug dealers or incinerators, just questions.

  • Rosemund Elliot

    So glad I stumbled on this article! The stench has definitely been getting worse and it seems like it spreads farther than ever. Just an hour ago I was at the intersection of MLK and 75 service drive thinking:
    what the heck smells like ass, is that the incinerator all the way over here?

    • javierjuanmanuel

      But why would it get worse? People recycle more, the power plant is the same, the incinerator is the same, what is the variable that changes the smell.

      I think this is a mental thing, the more you focus, the more you hate it, the more you get annoyed, etc and you can very easily convince yourself its getting worse all the time.

      It might be, but I cannot think of a single reason it would smell substantially different from 2 years ago, 8 years ago, 15 years ago.

      • Rosemund Elliot

        I don’t know why. I’m just glad for the confirmation that that ass smell that’s been allover midtown and the dmc is indeed the incinerator. In years past I only smelled it from 75 or 94 right by there. I mean, it seems like a mental thing FOR YOU, because you don’t seem like you have actual experience here.

  • Some days the incinerator smells like rotten meat, other days it smells like moldy death. Who gives a flying f*** if it started today or 25 years ago? It’s gross and something needs to be done about it.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      You did not buy in 25 years ago. I can tell that much. You have no right to complain anymore then I can buy a home right on the freeway, then complain about the noise and ask they reroute the freeway away from my home. I am super special you know. The freeway that has been there since 1964, I got a house cheap for being on the highway, now I want everyone else to make up for it.

      The thing that can be done about it, is you move. The fact you moved there means you did not care.

      How about if I buy a home by a highschool. Will they shut the highschool down because I do not like the sounds of cheers from games, or lights from football, or litter, or kids swearing, or cars chirping their tires and more ? What if I buy a house that is next to the school parking lot or field. Surely they will tear it down right?

      • Charles

        I’ve lived here a long time and I don’t remember it smelling like that years ago. In the last two or so years though it’s unbearable. I work the swing shift, which puts me driving through the 94/75 interchange area at 2AM if I choose to take that route. I don’t see how anybody who lives near there can stand it. I don’t understand why something like that needs to be in teh middle of teh city. Put in fucking Metamora for Christ’s sake.
        And I don’t see why being relatively new to an area should make one forfeit the right to complain about an intolerable situation.

        • Dust Buster

          why keep exporting detroits problems north?

        • javierjuanmanuel

          because the fact you bought the house with the existing condition is showing you did not care. If you sold me a car, as is, I can’t come back and complaint the power seats do not work, and that could be hidden ! This is a multi hundred million dollar facility with a giant stack you can see from the freeway.

          Buying something is consent. It is a contract that says you agree to it.

          Also in this case it is sorta nasty and drives prices down, so people got homes for cheap. Now they want to legislate the thing that made their home cheap out of existence.

          Why would it be in metamora ? I think this is almost all detroit trash, to generate power i think the city gets money for, and then the city does not pay to send the trash to a dump. Why the hell would metamora want this? WTF, it solves no problem that exists for them, and then introduces a new problem.

  • tb556

    The smell is horrible and I can’t imagine living next to it. I turn on my air recycler right before I hit E Grand Blvd overpass. It definitely has gotten worse over the past few years.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    Steve, why would the smell be getting worse? I am not aware of any changes in regulations, they same EPA stuff from before applies, and if anything based on my knowledge of the EPA they never lessen regulations, only increase them. I can’t fathom why it would smell worse.

    Now maybe all the new transplants, who grew up in the outer burbs and are playing out their urban fantasies they thought it was rough at first, now it is all they can focus on. But nothing really changed except they are getting more and more annoyed and wish the air was like back home.

    Welcome to the city people!

    This is for energy and reducing fees at dumpsites.

    • Shatner

      “Now maybe all the new transplants, who grew up in the outer burbs and are playing out their urban fantasies they thought it was rough at first, now it is all they can focus on. But nothing really changed except they are getting more and more annoyed and wish the air was like back home.

      Welcome to the city people!”

      Welcome to the mistake of moving back into detroit……exactly. And this is why the city will never revive. You have noxious fume polluting plants, blight and crime, no working utilities, shoddy education, racial strife, corrupt officials of every stripe, and lastly citizens who see any progress or gentrification as destroying the soul of the city.

      If there was a place so ready to dry up and turn to dust, it was the D, at least that’s my reaction to Javiers comment.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        Well if I was going to move inside detroit from the Grosse Pointe, harper woods, scs, area I have always lived (except for college) hamtown would be attractive.

        Hamtown is attractive in many ways if you are young and no kids. If i was 22 and not mid 30s I would want to live there. Especially if I was single.

        I just find it funny this incinerator has been going strong for 25 years, and people are acting like its somehow getting worse by the moment. No way. Not possible. I just think that detail is very funny.

        Also that it is getting any news space at all, it shows the clout of the hipsters that moved to hamtown and mid town just recently, and their friends must all be writers and editors for this to get any sort of attention.

        10 years ago, no one cared, no one talked about it, it was old news, and everyone was used to it.

        Its like a new almost 30 year old controversy. You just do not see that very often.

    • Dust Buster

      just like green acres when they moved to the sticks from new york to play country bumpkin and za za gabor started sneezing from pollen. achoooooo she vanted to go back to new yook so bad

    • Who cares if it’s “new transplants … playing out their urban fantasies”? Just because EPA regulations haven’t changed doesn’t mean that the corporation isn’t doing something new that just either isn’t regulated yet or they are blatantly ignoring regulations as many corporations do. The EPA does not have the resources to properly police every potential polluter so it’s up to concerned citizens to take action when they feel their rights are being infringed upon. Sure, sometimes this system gets abused, but it’s important that we have at least some way to fight back against people with infinitely more power and resources than any of the surrounding residents.

      Also it takes concerned people like this to revitalize an area. Because they’re willing to take the crappy with the good and try to improve the crappy parts, they will end up making Detroit livable for others down the line.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        Then report them, the EPA is damn near a rogue agency, they will fine a landscaper or a painter $20,000 per day per violation.

        By all means report them, I am sure the fine will be hundreds of thousands or millions.

        Concern cannot undue a incinerator that cost upwards of 150 million bucks. It has to be used.

        I mean well if the people in that neighborhood want to just pay 150 million bucks or more for the cleaner air, and DTE for the energy loss etc, then they can revitalize in that way. Not through complaints though.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        its not some evil corporation, its a public utility, it is basically guaranteed certain % of profit based on their gross. Its a monopoly granted to them.

        This is not some food company that can sell you shit and make more money. They are guaranteed to make money, no matter what they do.

        Yes by all means improve it, but the multi hundred million dollar facility stays, unless everyone working for change is going to open up their wallets and pay to shut it down, pay to knock it down, contribute the lost revenue, and pay for sending the trash to the dump. This could easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars per person in the area. Maybe much more if you factor in inflation and 30 more years useful life for the facility.

    • Rosemund Elliot

      Just wanna say: been in Detroit my whole life and the smell is worse FOR SURE!