Sunday, March 27, 2011

Updates on the Detroit Incinerator and Detroit Urban Ag policy

Sandra here - I went to the Green Task Force Meeting this afternoon. Unfortunately I arrived late and missed the Water Subcommittee report out, but got clarification on some really important issues about the Incinerator and Urban Ag policy.

The battle over the Detroit incinerator - some say the world's largest municipal solid waste incinerator - has been going on since it was first proposed and built in the 1980s during Coleman Young's administration. After decades of tangled contracts and subcontracts, with separate entities owning the land, owning the facility, operating the facility, collecting the garbage, selling the steam, repackaging the steam, distributing the steam (whew!)... the facility, operations, and steam loop have all come under one Canadian company called Atlas Holdings, which calls the grouping Detroit Renewable Power.

Detroit Renewable Power packaged the steam distribution together with the incinerator and is currently pursuing a combination of local and state tax abatements totaling over $14 million. They are also pursuing a state bond issued on their behalf to the tune of $75 million. Now, the state does not guarantee that bond and it would be sold to private investors. But it would be exempt from taxes because they'd use the state's bonding authority.

Brad Van Guilder (Ecology Center) noted that the history of this type of deal is suspect - the $80 million in state bonds was for another incinerator in Dearborn Heights. The whole project went bankrupt in three years and the private investors lost 100% of their investment. (Makes me think we should just go ahead and let 'em get the state bonds ^_^).

DRP is seeking $325,000 for the steam loop and $4.1 million for the incinerator in state brownfield tax credits. We all know that Gov. Snyder put out a budget that cuts the brownfield credits, but left a $50 million set aside for projects already in the pipeline. The Incinerator nosed in just before the deadline. If an important credit like the brownfield tax credit (which helped make nearly every single redevelopment in the city possible, from the Riverwalk to the Oddfellows Hall to the Book Cadillac) is going to be capped, not a penny should go to a stinky, cancer-causing, asthma-inducing incinerator!

Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority passed it over to the Community Advisory board, which approved the credits for the steam loop, but decided to have a public hearing for the incinerator - that's the meeting liveblogged in the previous entry. After hearing people speak, the Community Advisory board voted 5-2 to approve the tax credits, and now it goes to City Council for approval.

During the public comment period at the hearing on 3/17, we heard from neighborhood residents, Zero Waste Detroit, and incinerator employees. Residents living near the facility spoke of their children's asthma, members of Zero Waste Detroit questioned the incinerator's eligibility for public subsidies and pushed for a recycling-based alternative to solid waste disposal that would create more and safer jobs, and employees spoke of the positive changes at the facility since the change in ownership, that they had never had any asthma problems inside the facility, and that the city needed jobs at any cost.

Simone Sagovac of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision later pointed out that workers inside the facility wouldn't be exposed to the air emissions the way the surrounding neighborhood residents and school children would.

Brad and Margie Weber from Rosedale Recycles pointed out the artificial linking of the steam loop (which can run independently of the incinerator) with the incinerator for the state brownfield tax credits. Brad also questioned whether the proposed activity (which has not been described to the public) was eligible for public subsidy, noting that not only does the incinerator not produce a public benefit, but could operate without the subsidy.

Margie also said that the Incinerator is a financial mess for the city since it requires Detroit residents to pay for trash disposal at a rate of $170/ton while suburban cities are sending their trash to our incinerator for $30/ton.

Ahimna Maxey from East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Sandra Turner-Handy of Michigan Environmental Council, and Michelle Martinez from Sierra Club acknowledged the need for economic development and jobs in the city, but passionately spoke of the need to encourage clean, healthy industries that don't sacrifice the wellbeing of the city's residents for jobs.

Resident Ophelia Owens, member of the Community advisory board to the DBRA, nearly walked out in frustration after testifying about her entire family's problems with asthma and her own inability to work because of severe asthma problems.

Now that the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has approved the project for credits, the next step is a hearing at the Planning and Economic Development Committee of City Council at 10am, April 28 at the Coleman A Young Municipal Center.


Right to Farm

Right to Farm is a state law originally intended to protect existing farms from nuisance complaints by encroaching businesses and residents sprawling out into the suburbs and exurbs. As long as a farm is in compliance with generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPS), they are protected by the law. The Act actually prohibits local farming regulations that would be stricter than the state regulations.

However, now that the City of Detroit is considering various commercial farming proposals, the situation is flipped: the City needs to be able to protect existing residents and businesses from encroaching farms coming into an urban area.

Kathryn Underwood from the City Planning Commission has been spearheading the City's urban agriculture policy efforts, and reported that Detroit would need an amendment to Right to Farm that allowed an exemption for cities of a certain size. Professors John Mogk and Komi Pathukuchi from Wayne State University are assisting with efforts to pass legislation introduced by Reps. Gabe Leland, D-Detroit, and Mike Huckleberry, D-Greenville in 2010 to exempt Detroit from the Right to Farm Act.

Both the Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture oppose exempting Detroit from the Act. The Farm Bureau argues that it is important for farmers to be regulated by a consistent set of rules, and not a patchwork of rules that changes by location. If necessary, the Farm Bureau recommends that Detroit use the established process of enacting additional ordinances subject to review by the Michigan Commission of Agriculture. Both the Farm Bureau and the Dept. of Ag. believe that the standards set by the GAAMPs are adequate to regulate farms for environmental health and safety.

The key is to put in place a policy that both promotes urban agriculture while protecting the city from the environmental stresses of commercial agriculture such as increased soil and water pollution and increased water demands.

Farm Bureau statement:
Great Lakes Echo on 2010 Bill:

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