MetroTimes Article: Detroit’s incinerator has folks calling for action – Midtown’s big stink

It didn’t smell when Brittney Willis closed on her Midtown condominium on Halloween of 2011. 

The emergency room nurse at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace Hospital recalls the moment as a transformative period in her life: It was her first big purchase as an adult, she says, one that moved the 28-year-old from her parents’ home in Warren to a rejuvenated community in Detroit. The widely praised “Live Midtown” incentive program, an initiative launched in 2011 to attract prospective homeowners to the district, lessened Willis’ financial burden by offering a $20,000 forgivable loan toward her mortgage.

Between the district’s new restaurants, nightlife, and the Detroit Institute of Arts being located within a stone’s throw, it was an ideal choice, Willis says.

A week after she moved in, though, she caught a whiff of something downright nasty. 

“I came down here a couple times,” Willis, a University of Detroit Mercy graduate, says of the period after signing a purchase agreement in February 2011. “My parents came down here; we didn’t smell anything.”

Though she didn’t realize it at the time, what Willis may have inhaled that day was coming from Detroit’s incineration facility, located nearby at 5700 Russell St.

The hulking incinerator, the largest facility of its kind in the nation, disposes of 3,300 tons of waste per day. It has been a point of controversy in Detroit since before its inception in 1986. 

On Nov. 7, 2011, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) logged a complaint from a Detroit resident who believed it was the source of a “horrible odor” around Midtown.

Two days later, Michigan’s Air Quality Division (AQD) — at the time a division of the NRE, now under the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) — sent an inspector to investigate. 

Downwind from the incinerator, “I smelled a light and intermittent garbage odor near the corner of Trombley Street and Grand Boulevard,” wrote Remilando Pinga, AQD senior environmental engineer, in a complaint investigation obtained by Metro Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. “I also smelled a faint garbage odor north from the facility near the railroad tracks close to the Michigan Box facility.”

Pinga determined the garbage odor was “not of intensity and magnitude to constitute a Rule 901(b) violation,” a section of state administrative protocol which prohibits “unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.” It’s a straightforward nuisance rule that the incinerator’s owner, Detroit Renewable Power (DRP), had already been cited for twice that year, Pinga wrote. 

At the time, Willis didn’t know of Rule 901(b) or even the incinerator. She was still beaming with excitement over her new home. Soon enough, she forgot about the incident. It was wintertime; the scent of garbage just doesn’t carry through cold air. 

But when the following summer arrived, and temperatures started to rise, Willis says, “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’” 

The smell returned again and again — and again. Inside her living room, Willis points to the collection of Bath & Body Works candles she’s accumulated over time as a defense mechanism to fend off the scent of trash. “I’m their biggest fan,” she says, half-sarcastically. 

Those close to Willis have a hard time believing it can be that bad. But one day she managed to prove an unfortunate friend wrong, one who stopped by her place and couldn’t believe how awful it smelled. 

Willis says of the moment: “I was like, ‘Hello! Welcome to Midtown Detroit.’” Earlier this year, Willis says she experienced an asthma attack — the first since she was a child — although she can’t directly attribute it to the incinerator.

Eventually, Willis found she wasn’t the only one inhaling the odor. For years, the Detroit incinerator near the intersection of I-94 and I-75 has had its neighbors raising a stink of their own. 

AGAIN AND AGAIN

Last week, MDEQ issued DRP a notice of violation (NOV) for an excessive odor that was traced back to the incinerator. Think of an NOV as a police officer issuing a warning for speeding rather than writing a ticket. It’s a slap on the wrist. It’s a way to say, “Please, get this right so we don’t have to do this again.”

The notice came after three complaints were filed on June 29. MDEQ inspectors then investigated the alleged odor, a process laid out in documents obtained by Metro Times. 

“It’s a horrible, raw waste smell,” a resident wrote June 29, believing it to be from the piles of trash generated by metro Detroiters that accumulates in the nearby facility. Wherever it came from, he said, it kept him from stepping outside.

As shown in MDEQ investigation documents, staff inspectors tracked their process step-by-step in determining the source of the odor. 

“Strong garbage odors were identified impacting residents along Chene Street and Joseph Campau between Hendrie and Medbury Street,” wrote Todd Zynda, of DEQ’s Air Quality Division, in a June complaint investigation. “Constant garbage odors were identified in the residential area of East Grand Boulevard and Medbury Street.”

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