Memo to Hillary: Detroit Incinerator Is Not “Clean Energy”

Hillary Clinton speaking in Detroit Saturday, and Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator. Photos: Emily Lawler ( and Steve Neavling (Motor City Muckraker).

In a campaign visit to a Detroit auto parts plant Saturday, Hillary Clinton praised what she described as the continuing strength of Michigan’s hard-hit manufacturing sector. But her reference to sustainable practices at General Motors’ Poletown plant, which draws much of its energy from Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator, might smell a little funny to the incinerator’s neighbors.

“You used to make B-24 bombers at Willow Run,” Clinton said. “Now you’re developing driverless cars there…Chevy is making electric cars in Hamtramck and using clean energy to do it.”

It’s unlikely that Clinton is familiar with the details of energy sourcing at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, which now produces the Chevy Volt and has a checkered history of its own with respect to corporate power. In the 1980s, Detroit’s Poletown neighborhood (population 3,500) was demolished by the city to accommodate the new plant, in what has been called the largest and fastest-ever relocation of people in the United States under the power of eminent domain. That struggle pitted Detroit Mayor Coleman Young against neighborhood residents and dissidents who included self-described “independent socialist” City Councilman Ken Cockrel, Sr. Mayor Young argued the plant was desperately needed to bring jobs back to Detroit, but Cockrel accused Mayor Young of putting the welfare of a wealthy corporation above the well-being of residents, charges which echo today in Senator Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of Clinton.

No media sources seem to have taken special note of Clinton’s statement, but those familiar with the Hamtramck plant may know that the bulk of its so-called “renewable energy” comes from a surprising source: Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator, best known by many residents for the noxious odors that it wafts through surrounding neighborhoods.

Pipeline connects incinerator and plant. Source: General Motors.

The trash incinerator is just over I-94 from the GM plant, and GM announced construction of a steam pipeline connecting the two facilities in 2013. According to the GM press release, the pipe was expected to provide 15.8 megawatts of energy to the plant, or fully 12 percent of GM’s company-wide renewable energy goal. The Hamtramck plant also has a major solar panel installation, which was as of 2014 the largest of its kind in Michigan, but that produces only 516 kilowatts, or less than one-third the energy supplied by burning trash from Detroit and its suburbs.

Like the Poletown plant itself, the Detroit incinerator was built under Mayor Young, but not by private interests. It was constructed by the city itself. Mayor Young sold it as a jobs project for a city struggling with rampant unemployment. It opened in 1986, at a cost of $1.2 billion, and remains the largest waste incinerator in the United States. Unfortunately, even without considering its environmental effects, the incinerator proved a disastrous investment for the city. It failed to turn a profit and, within a few years of its opening, the city attempted to cut its losses by selling the facility to private investors. However, the incinerator’s current owner, Detroit Renewable Power, has received millions of dollars in tax credits from the city.

To say that the incinerator is unpopular with Detroit neighbors would be an understatement. In 2013 alone, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality logged 113 complaints over the incinerator’s noxious pollution, which can be detected from both prosperous corners of Midtown and the hard-hit neighborhoods across I-75. The precise health effects of the incinerator are unknown, but the hospitalization rate for asthma in its vicinity, which also includes major freeways, is more than double that of the rest of the state. Most recently, the incinerator has been the subject of class-action lawsuits by residents, as reported by Motor City Muckraker.

Environmental Injustice and Due Diligence

“Clean energy” from a giant trash-burning facility in the middle of an impoverished, majority-black city is probably not the kind of thing Hillary Clinton wants to be promoting, particularly given her outspoken criticism of Michigan’s handling of the Flint water crisis. The poisoning of Flint may be the most shocking case of environmental injustice in Michigan, but it’s one that the Detroit incinerator parallels in many respects: a largely poor, largely black community exposed to toxic substances in a misguided attempt to improve a city’s bottom line.

Again, Hillary Clinton probably knows none of this. Most likely, her staffers obtained the Chevy reference from a General Motors fact sheet. Yet her statement remains an unfortunate example of the way unpleasant truths can be papered over in politics, particularly when one is striving to put a brave face on a city that has borne the worst effects of almost every federal policy over the last century, from subsidized suburban segregation to unfair international trade policies.

On the heels of her Chevy reference, Clinton said: “Shinola has created more than 500 jobs and they’ve cornered the market on watches for presidents. Both my husband and President Obama love their Shinolas.” It hardly needs to be said, however, that the market on watches for presidents is a small one, and while Shinola can justly be praised for employing Detroiters, it is difficult to imagine a firm that better exemplifies the rising chasm of inequality than a boutique manufacturer which sells thousand-dollar watches in a city where more than half of all children live in poverty.

The sad histories of the Poletown plant and the Detroit incinerator also testify to the perils in tethering political leadership to the private quest for profit. Coleman Young did not set out to be the “mayor from General Motors,” as some of his critics dubbed him, any more than he set out to send a foul-smelling cloud of garbage fumes over his beloved city. Yet, nonetheless, he made the choice to support both projects, and Detroit continues to deal with the consequences.

The Motor City may yet be America’s comeback city, but one may ask what kind of comeback can be built on burning trash. As Michiganders consider their choice for the Democratic presidential nomination in tomorrow’s primary, they might wish to ask themselves whether their candidate would tend to accept corporate claims at face value, or subject them to the scrutiny of a smell test.

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