Residents living near Detroit’s former incinerator are pushing to delay the Sunday demolition of its smokestack, citing communication concerns and poor air quality in the city due to Canadian wildfire smoke.
Detroit’s incinerator closed in 2019 after decades of burning thousands of tons of trash per day. Since the city announced the demolition date to community leaders on May 26, neighbors have expressed concerns about a perceived lack of communication from the city and safety risks. Homrich Wrecking and Dykon Explosive Demolition are leading the implosion. City officials said they’ve taken “above and beyond” measures to inform neighbors and the demolition was carefully planned.
Detroit officials met with residents Wednesday to answer some of the 28 questions residents prepared for the community meeting about personal safety, the demolition process, how pollution would be controlled, and the city’s prior efforts to inform residents of the demolition. Following the meeting, some residents say they still feel questions are unanswered and they want the demolition to be put off until there’s more information and improved air quality.
Due to Canadian wildfire smoke, Detroit’s air quality in recent days is among the worst in the world out of 90 major cities, putting it in the “unhealthy” category.
“Our push is to delay the demolition to get correct communications, details of the permit, and have better overall air quality,” said KT Andresky, resident and organizer for Breathe Free Detroit, which led the fight to get the incinerator shut down. Andresky is also on the board of the East Ferry Warren Community Association, which is collectively pushing for the demolition delay.
“Residents throughout Detroit are experiencing inflammation in their lungs from the air; adding particulate matter from an incinerator stack demolition dust seems very hazardous to those living nearby, especially since we have not had any rain for over a month,” she said.
Despite the concern and poor air quality, the city plans to continue with Sunday’s demolition.
“There’s no reason to delay the implosion of the incinerator stack, as it’s been very carefully planned over the course of the past year and will be felled in a safe manner,” Tyrone Clifton, director of the Detroit Building Authority, said in a Thursday statement to BridgeDetroit. “Additionally, there are no neighbors who live in the impact zone.”
On Wednesday evening, District 5 Manager Joshua Roberson, along with officials from other city departments, held a Zoom meeting with members of the East Ferry Warren Community Association to address questions. Representatives from the offices of state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, also attended as well as an official from the region’s Environmental Protection Agency office.
Roberson told residents during the meeting multiple times that the city went “above and beyond” with its communication efforts.
He said city staff covered a one-mile radius on foot to deliver fliers informing residents of the demolition – which Roberson noted is five times what’s required under industry standards. “We wanted to go above and beyond and reach out a mile,” he said.
A press release was issued May 24, community leaders were notified May 26, and canvassing began last week.
“We tried our best to overcommunicate to all organizations as best as possible,” he said.
”We wanted to give people at least two weeks, a week-and-a-half [notice],” he said Wednesday night. “Even today, we’re still passing out flyers, trying to make sure everyone knows.”
Robbie Moore, a board member-at-large for the East Ferry Warren Community association, was one of several association members who distributed city demolition notices to neighbors on Tuesday. They canvassed in the residential area closest to the incinerator.
Moore said they spoke to people at around half of the 50 homes they stopped at, and not a single person said they had received a notice from the city. One person had a flier, Moore said, but reported receiving it from another community organization. A couple others said they learned about the demolition via broadcast news.
“The overwhelming response was that residents had not heard anything about the demolition or had maybe seen it happening, but they didn’t know that the stack was being demolished,” he told BridgeDetroit.
Another issue some felt wasn’t adequately addressed was what happens if the demolition goes wrong.
“There was no guidance from the city on this last night; their answer was to trust that they are taking every measure to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Andresky said Thursday.
Andresky and others want to make sure the kind of accident that occurred in a majority-Latino community in Chicago in April 2020 doesn’t happen in Detroit. In that case the demolition of a smokestack ended up caking nearby homes, cars, and everything else in the vicinity in dust.
Andresky and other members of the community association met with members of Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization Thursday morning to learn more about the demolition that went wrong there. A city hall inspector general report recommended disciplinary action be taken against several Chicago city officials for the botched demolition.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Clifton cited Homrich’s decades of experience and expressed no worry about such a scenario happening in Detroit.
“We’re pretty confident in our approach and where we are and how we’re going to do this,” he said.
Clifton said there will be four water misters along with hoses to wet the smokestack before, during, and after the demolition, and commercial-grade wet sweepers will also be used on the street to contain the dust. For a year now, officials said they’ve been demolishing other parts of the incinerator site and haven’t experienced any issues with harmful chemicals.
“This process was designed to have no direct impact on air quality in the city, and the Canadian wildfires have no bearing on this whatsoever,” Clifton told BridgeDetroit Wednesday, noting wetting measures will be taken to contain dust, and air quality will be monitored throughout the process. The results will be made public, he said.
Jeff Gearhart, research director at the environmental nonprofit The Ecology Center, disagrees that the demolition won’t have an impact. He noted that airborne contaminants will likely include silica and a number of other contaminants from the decades-long operations.
“When a 330-plus feet column with over a million pounds of concrete comes down, you simply cannot entirely control that,” Gearhart said by email. “These demolitions always have an impact on nearby area air quality. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking. The question is the extent, duration, and concentration of dust.”
Moore said even if the demolition was delayed he’s doubtful it would result in more answers.
“My main hope is that folks have as much information as they need to be safe, and I’m worried that we don’t know that. We just don’t have enough information,” he said.