The Detroit Incinerator

Whichever way you slice it, the matter of the Detroit Renewable Energy waste incinerator is a bitter chew. For over thirty years, the facility cradled near the cross-section of 1-75 and 1-94 shirked air quality standards, emitted putrid odors and dangerous pollutants into Black residential neighborhoods, and made people sick, as it burned trash that belonged (mostly) to whiter, more affluent communities. 

According to Breathe Free Detroit, Detroiters are three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma than other Michigan residents while children living near the incinerator are five times more likely. Pick a Saturday afternoon and knock on the doors of residents who inhaled the stench from the smokestacks at 5700 Russell during their morning commutes. They likely know a child who has received urgent or emergency medical treatment for breathing trouble. Or maybe, they took daily breathing treatments themselves until the fires stopped burning two years ago.

Worse yet, Detroiters paid more to endure the harm and pollute their own communities. A 2018 investigation from Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and Breathe Free Detroit found that the city paid $25 per ton of trash, even though Detroit only produced about 22 percent of the waste being burned. Nearby suburban communities like the Grosse Pointes, on the other hand, paid $15 per ton. To say that its closure in March 2019 was a victory is an understatement of the highest degree.

But finally ceasing the fires at the incinerator doesn’t mark the full solution.

While Black Detroiters have always been ardent and vocal leaders in the fight against the incinerator, it’s white voices and faces that are easily found in the history of protests throughout the late 1980s as the facility was being built. Characterized as radical outsiders (though many of them lived within the city) who overlooked the more pressing needs of actual (read: Black) Detroiters, not the least of them long-term, stable jobs, organizations like the Evergreen Alliance and Greenpeace failed to successfully argue the true potential for harm to Detroit’s then-Mayor Coleman A. Young who stood in strong support of the incinerator’s construction.

At Detroit’s Outstate Media Day in May 1988, Mayor Young told a room of reporters that, when it was completed, the $500 million municipal waste project would be the most modern and biggest incinerator in the United States and that Michigan itself “needed about ten more of them.” He continued, “We’re running out of landfills, if people don’t know it. We are threatening the groundwater; we’re threatening to poison ourselves with garbage—unless we do something about it. Right now, that incinerator represents the best answer.” 

Mayor Young then discussed concerns that had come from our Canadian neighbors in Windsor, Ontario regarding emissions from the smokestacks that might cause acid rain. After describing how the city had worked with the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources to ensure that the facility would meet environmental safety standards, he said, “We in Michigan have much more stringent requirements on emissions than they do in Canada, precisely in Ontario. They have 11 incinerators operating south of the border over here. They couldn’t operate one day in Michigan because they would violate our sanitation, our air purity laws. They’ve got a hell of a lot of nerve to be yelling about us.”

From his viewpoint, Mayor Young did what he could to ensure that the incinerator was a good deal for Detroiters and a good deal for the environment. 

Environmental justice activists and community organizers rightfully brought the ruckus to oppose the facility—even before it was built. But when Black activists and environmentalists failed to be recognized at the center of the movement, it became even more difficult to convince a beloved, trusted Black leader—who loved Detroiters back—that putting the incinerator in our city would ultimately poison us.

The incinerator is shut down now, but there remains the question, “What’s next?”

People who worked at the incinerator lost their jobs. There is a need for well-paying green jobs to replace them. There’s also the pressing matter of effectively educating citizens about the waste reduction cycle. Recycling is often discussed as the main option when in truth, it’s the final option in a journey to zero waste. 

We must reduce waste when possible, reuse that which is safe to do so, and recycle once those two options have been exhausted.

Then, there is the matter of the structure that remains. What can be done to bring it down without causing harm to the residents who are still there? Can the land be cleaned and donated back to the community? Now that the burning has stopped, how can the city heal?

Nearby places of note to visit:

Golightly Education Center  Golightly is a celebrated Pre K-8 public magnet school serving roughly 350 students. It is accessible via the I-75 service drive with a direct view of the smokestacks from the municipal waste incinerator from its entry door and playground. 

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History  Founded by physician and historian Dr. Charles H. Wright from his home in Detroit, The Wright Museum now houses more than 35,000 artifacts relative to African American history. Prior to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Wright was the largest permanent museum dedicated to the African American experience in the world. Located on Warren between John R and Brush, the museum is a swift bike ride from the incinerator.

Plymouth United Church of Christ  Since 1974, Plymouth UCC has been an active part of the Detroit community from its edifice at E. Warren and I-75. For almost 30 years, the congregation was led by Rev. Nicholas Hood, Sr., who was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and as the second Black person elected to the position, held a seat on Detroit’s City Council for over 28 years. His son, Rev. Nicholas Hood, III currently leads Plymouth and its continued ministries through the church, Cyprian Center, Nicholas Hood Homes, and Plymouth Education Center, all in the neighborhood surrounding the church building.

Audio Postcards

Rhonda Anderson is a longtime Detroit activist and community organizer in the field of environmental justice. She works closely with neighborhoods and individuals through her work at the Sierra Club to teach people how to advocate for themselves.

Sandra Turner-Handy is an environmental justice advocate, currently serving citizens of Michigan as community engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council and supervisor of Zero Waste Detroit.

Then, there is the matter of the structure that remains. What can be done to bring it down without causing harm to the residents who are still there? Can the land be cleaned and donated back to the community? Now that the burning has stopped, how can the city heal? See A Celebration of Fresh Air for a vision of healing ceremony on these exhausted lands.


Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get the latest local enviro news in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top