News Feature | May 22, 2017

Detroit Biosolids Reuse Plant Blamed For Air Pollution

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

An increasingly popular biosolids reuse practice has a downside: air pollution.

The Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant is devoted to converting human waste to fertilizer. The $143 million facility opened last year. Great Lakes Water Authority CEO Sue McCormick has called it "environmentally sound, proven" technology.

But the plant is running into problems with sulfur dioxide emissions, exceeding permitted toxic pollution standards. Local activists are outraged that the facility is “adding harmful pollutants to an area that already has the dirtiest air in metro Detroit,” the Associated Press reported.

The Detroit Free Press, which first reported the problem, described the situation: “The biosolids dryer facility — operated by a private, for-profit company in partnership with the water authority — has exceeded its permitted emission levels of harmful sulfur dioxide since it began operating last April, according to data reviewed by the Free Press. Smokestack-monitoring data shows the facility exceeded the one-hour emission standard for sulfur dioxide more than 2,500 times from April 5, 2016, through February 28.”

“Residents in the area face a polluting gauntlet of steel mills, coal-fired power plants, a major garbage incinerator and factories — and it shows in their respiratory health. Detroit’s hospitalization rate for asthma is more than three times the rate for Michigan as a whole, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Short-term exposures to sulfur dioxide can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult, according to the [U.S.] EPA,” the Free Press reported.

Suzanne Coffey, a top official at the Great Lakes Water Authority, said this problem is just "a natural part" of launching a major facility, according to the Free Press. "We are going through a typical performance testing period," she said, per the report. "We are not the only discharger of SO2 in the area... We're not feeling like this is a significant environmental impact."

For public advocates in Detroit, the fact that the facility is privately-owned is a major point of concern.

“That a private company is turning a profit off a product it's obtaining from the publicly funded wastewater treatment plant, as that company pollutes, is particularly outrageous to [Elizabeth Milton, a certified asthma educator and advocate with the nonprofit Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness],” according to the Free Press.

The biosolid drying facility was a top priority for the Great Lakes Water Authority, which assumed operations for water and sewer services in Wayne County in the wake of Detroit's bankruptcy, according to previous reporting by the Detroit Free Press.

To read more about biosolids visit Water Online’s Sludge And Biosolids Processing Solutions Center.