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The Planet

Henry Ford (Cough) Quits Smoking Detroit coaltion forces hospital incinerator shutdown

By John Byrne Barry

Sitting on his front porch, James Williams can see the smokestack of Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital medical waste incinerator jutting into the sky. It's right across the street. But since June 15, there's been no smoke.

That's because over the past three years, Williams, a member of the Virginia Park District Council and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, teamed up with Wayne County Commissioner Jewel Ware, the Sierra Club and other community groups and forced the hospital to stop burning its waste.

When the Coalition to Shut Down the Henry Ford Hospital Incinerator first met with hospital officials in 1998, the hospital was burning 6 million pounds of medical and solid waste on site a year. Today, the hospital, which sits in the middle of a predominantly African American community, recycles most of its paper products and uses an autoclave, which disinfects the medical waste at high temperatures so it can be landfilled safely.

The hospital never admitted that it was polluting.

"We be responsible and sensitive neighbors and shut it down, even though we know it operates within all the requirements and is safe," said a hospital spokesperson.

The hospital was vulnerable to the pressure, said Williams, because it wants to get along with the community. Williams' front lawn was just one of many near the hospital decorated - until mid-June - with signs saying: "Shut It Down, Henry Ford." Coalition members also picketed the hospital and testified at public hearings. Williams went to the Sweet Home Baptist Church, another neighbor of the hospital, to recruit supporters.

A study by the Michigan Department of Community Health found that the area surrounding Henry Ford Hospital has one of the highest rates of children hospitalized for asthma in the state.

From the beginning, leading the charge for the Sierra Club was Anna Holden, conservation co-chair of the Southeast Michigan Group. She said the idea that pollution from the hospital could be contributing to the high asthma rates hurt the hospital's reputation. And the discovery that two suburban affiliates of Henry Ford Hospital, in predominantly white neighborhoods, didn't burn their waste but sent it to a commercial autoclave, intensified community outrage. It wasn't just a fight against air pollution anymore, but an environmental justice struggle as well.

"The hospital also recognized the strength and staying power of the coalition," said Holden. "They shuffled us around at first. Then they realized we weren't going away."

The campaign also got a boost last fall when the University of Michigan hospital in nearby Ann Arbor closed its incinerator. "If they could do it, so could Henry Ford," said Williams.

Last December, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners passed Jewel Ware's resolution asking the hospital to limit its burning.

"We never attacked the hospital in an adversarial way," said Holden. "Our approach was that this was something the hospital would want to do if it was interested in the health of the neighborhood. We went to them and said, 'We'll help you in any way we can.' We turned it into a partnership."

The coalition is continuing to work with the hospital to beef up its recycling efforts and improve its purchasing practices, specifically to reduce the amount of disposable packaging. The hospital recently took a pledge to eliminate mercury in thermometers. (Wayne County is the first county in the country, said Holden, to pass a resolution encouraging hospitals to stop using mercury.)

Ed Mcardle, the group's other conservation co-chair, said the coalition is now targeting other polluting incinerators in the Detroit area, like the Hamtramck Medical Waste Incinerator, and the big daddy of them all, Detroit's municipal waste incinerator, one of the largest in the world.

Hamtramck is an old predominantly Polish city surrounded on all sides by Detroit.

In June, Holden led a tour of Hamtramck to highlight the city's murals, gardens and markets, and to mobilize support for the fight against the incinerator, which has failed to meet emissions restrictions for most of its 10-year history.

She acknowledged that the operator of the Hamtramck incinerator won't be as concerned with its public image as Henry Ford Hospital, but there are other ways to apply pressure.

"We're going to their customers, and have got some of them to agree not to send their waste to any incinerator."

Among the institutions shipping medical waste to Hamtramck, said Holden, are Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and the prestigious Karamanos Cancer Institute.

"How can a cancer institute justify burning its waste in a polluting incinerator?" she asked.

Photo caption: A Coalition That Wouldn't Go Away: Donele Wilkins, at right, executive director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, congratulates the Sierra Club's Anna Holden at the celebration of Henry Ford Hospital's announcement to shut down its inciner

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