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The largest solid waste incinerator in the United States, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility incinerator burns an estimated 2800 tons of commercial and household waste each day. Built in 1986 during Mayor Coleman A. Young's tenure, it has had a troubled financial and political history which is captured in Ron Allen's poem, "Incinerator."
The City of Detroit financed the incinerator with $440 million in bonds, but when faced with a budget deficit and a requirement from the State of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality to improve the incinerator's pollution controls, the city sold the facility to Philip Morris and Aviation Services both of which were attracted by tax credits associated with the facility (Collins). In "Incinerator" Allen references the current owner: "…Hey! How bout a poly chlorinated/dibenzo-p-dioxyns cigarette?" (38). The city pays rent to the incinerator's owners and management and operation fees to Michigan Waste Energy, a subsidiary of Covanta Energy-a company currently in bankruptcy (Covanta). The consequence of its thorny financial history is that it costs about $120 per ton to incinerate Detroit's waste, in contrast to a national average of about $57 per ton (Collins).
Since its inception, the incinerator has also been the source of local and international political protest about its environmental impact. Protesters have included groups such as Evergreen Alliance, Detroiters for Environmental Justice, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Ann Arbor's Ecology Center, and the Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario and Southeast Michigan. "Incinerator" captures the political rage this "waste crematorium" (Collins) has generated: "Gotta suck Coleman's world through / a Hydrogen chloride straw" (38). Allen uses strong scatological sexual language and imagery to confront the personal impact of the incinerator's emissions on individuals. He captures the ultimate concern of organized protests:
Death don't suck away this smoke
of stench stolid polysyllabic compounds
that eradicate life…. (40)
Using the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EP A), the Chemical Scorecard-a community education tool developed by the National Resource Defense Council-ranks the air pollution releases from the incinerator. Although its air releases-except for carbon monoxide-are within the EPA limits, it still emits approximately 1800 tons of pollutants annually ("News Hits" 10). In the Introduction to Allen's Neon Jawbone Riot poet Jim Perkinson characterizes Allen's poetry: "Those at the raw end of the market will find their groan articulate here" (6). Of the "permitted" pollutants Allen thunders:
It emits unmitigated insufferable
if unchallenged chromium fists
stuck in the malleable throats
of an innocent breath.... (40)
In discussing modern environmental degradation, the nature writing of today's conservation movement has joined forces with the protest tradition in literature. With "Incinerator" Allen serves as an angered witness to the physical impact of the pollution of waste disposal in a major urban center.
Jane Hammang-Buhl is Associate Professor of Business at Marygrove College, where she specializes in business ethics and teaches an interdisciplinary seminar on environmental issues.
Photos by Anna Fedor.
Boyd, Melba Joyce. & M. L. Liebler, Eds. Abandon Automobile. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2000. Print.
Collins, Lisa. "Ill Wind: The Huge Smokestack Burns Big bucks and Spews Bad Fumes." Metro Times 20 March 2002.
17 July 2003. Web.
Covanta. "About Our Restructuring." Covanta 17 July 2003. Web.
"News Hits." Metro Times 13 September 2002. 17 July 2003. Web.
Perkinson, James. "Introduction," in Allen, R. Neon Jawbone Riot. Detroit: Weightless Language, 2000. Print.
Originally posted September 2003