Sludge match

Diane Bukowski
Opponents of private facility say it’s unnecessary, unhealthy

DETROIT — Without a whimper, Minergy Detroit LLC’s plan for a private incinerator for the city’s water and sewerage department expired after five years of protests by union and environmental activists.

But the company, a subsidiary of the giant Wisconsin Energy Corporation, is still seeking to profit from its 15-year, $375 million deal with the city.

It wants to sell its contract to Houston-based Synagro Technologies, which plans to transform sludge from the Waste Water Treatment Plant downriver into fertilizer pellets for land application. Environmentalists say the process has caused disease and death nationwide.

A city council public hearing on the buy-out is set for Thurs. Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the South Rademacher Recreation Center, 6501 S. in Detroit.

“Ever since the EPA banned ocean dumping 10 years ago, a whole industry has grown selling their processes to dispose of [sludge],” said John Riehl, president of Local 207 of the American Federation of State.

“Detroit burns or buries ours. That system has improved. It is certainly better than Synagro’s track record. But if the debate leads council to support pelletizing, remember this, Detroit city workers can do that work also. There is nothing that Synagro could offer that city workers couldn’t do for a lot cheaper with investment in Detroit’s infrastructure.”

Riehl and members of his local, which represents water department workers, fought Minergy’s original plan, saying it would displace nearly 200 city workers.

Water department worker Steven Borella told the council that there is no need for either a private incinerator like that Minergy had planned, or a pelletizing process.

“Our current incinerators have the capacity to handle all the plant’s sludge, 5,266 tons a day,” said Borella.

“The department has invested $300 million in a computer control system to operate the incinerators, and recent improvements can make them virtually emission-free.”

Water Department director Victor Mercado told the council in a written statement that the department had not received a proposal from Synagro as of Feb. 2.

“In terms of the Minergy contract,” said Mercado, “DWSD has previously responded to privatization concerns by assuring all parties that no employee will be without a job. Waste Water Treatment plant personnel impacted by the Minergy contract agreement will be retrained and reassigned.”

Aside from the controversy over the privatization involved in the proposed Synagro deal, problems relating to land application of sludge are increasingly being raised across the country.

In the South Bronx in New York City, Synagro operates the world’s largest sludge-to-fertilizer plant, which was built in 1993.

Neighbors in the largely Black and Latino communities near the plant have complained of odors, emission of asthma-causing particulates, and the flushing of industrial waste into the city’s sewer system.

“For the 11,000 people who live within two miles, it can be really nauseating,” Elena Conte of Sustainable South Bronx, said.

“You can get to the point where you want to throw up.”

In addition to complaints from communities near sludge processing plants, residents of hundreds of poor, rural areas where farms use the sludge for fertilizer have claimed that the process has caused disease and deaths.

In DeSoto County, Florida, residents say they believe that spates of pneumonia, bronchitis, pleurisy, headaches, sinus infections, fevers and severe diarrhea common in the area are directly attributable to the use of sewage sludge on nearby farms.

Thirty-nine similar outbreaks of illness have been reported in Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, and 11 other states, according to public health experts.

In 2000, Synagro settled a New Hampshire lawsuit filed by the family of 26-year-old Shayne Conner out of court, for an undisclosed sum. Conner’s family said he died after being exposed to sludge on a nearby farm.

Synagro and other sludge processing companies have denied that the illnesses and deaths are caused by their products, and have actively fought lawsuits, seeking to discredit experts testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The Michigan Citizen.