Taking out the trash 

Hamtramck activists didn’t take much of a Thanksgiving break this year.

Instead, folks like Rob Cedar, city councilman and head of the Hamtramck Environmental Action Team, and representatives from the Sierra Club and the Ecology Center, worked to get the word out about a public hearing set to take place at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2 in Hamtramck High School.

Cedar wants Hamtown residents to show up, en masse, and vent their outrage over Michigan Waste Services’ alleged disregard for the health and well-being of the surrounding community. The company, owned by Norm Aardema, applied last year for a permit to operate an autoclave at the medical waste incinerator, which disposes of toxic substances ranging from used bandages to body parts.

The equipment sterilizes medical waste through an intensely hot steam process. Thing is, Aardema had already installed and begun using it by the time he asked for the state’s approval, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

It would be nice to say this comes as a shock, but given the facility’s track record, it appears to be little more than the latest spit in the community’s eye.

The incinerator’s been out of compliance with state regulations since 1999, and has been hit with hundreds of violations during the same time period. The abuses, the state says, range from illegally high mercury emissions to failure to train customers on how to immunize waste before sending it out for disposal.

The incinerator has operated under two permits since it opened in 1992. The first allowed it to function as an incineration site. The second, granted in 1999, replaced the original allowance with a modified version that included federal compliance requirements.

MWS filed two more applications in 2003. One called for the option to alternate between an incinerator and a co-fired combustor, which burns limited amounts of waste based on weight and percentage of medical waste burned. The most recent, which is also the cause of the Dec. 2 hearing, attempts to make a permanent switch to the autoclave.

The state never approved either of the last two applications. And Mary Charley, an MDEQ engineering specialist, says the department will not approve new permits if past violations aren’t corrected. The state filed a lawsuit in April in Ingham Circuit Court to force MWS to correct its existing infractions, and a hearing is scheduled for February.

In the meantime, the people of Hamtramck are getting sick of the thing — maybe literally.

Residents who attended a community meeting held in the city two weeks ago told state representatives in attendance that they fear the neighborhoods closest to the facility, which are predominantly Yemeni and Muslim, are in danger of developing health problems caused by emissions from the incinerator’s smokestacks.

Natasha Foreman, 35, a Wayne State University adjunct professor on maternity leave who attended the meeting, told News Hits that residents shared chilling tales about children playing outside, and then coming into their homes and vomiting. She herself was afraid to get pregnant while living near the facility.

Incineration of medical waste has ticked off neighborhoods across the county. The Sierra Club says the number of similar facilities has dwindled from 5,000 to 115 over a decade. Many hospitals got rid of their in-house incinerators — Henry Ford Hospital shut down its igniter last year — and resorted to using regional facilities. Hamtramck is one of them, and it accepts waste from hospitals as far away as Ohio.

“The incinerator is essentially a bad operation,” Cedar says. “They have no right applying for a new permit.”

Bob McCann, MDEQ assistant press secretary, says residents shouldn’t necessarily interpret the Dec. 2 hearing as a sign that the state plans to approve the application. Legally, the MDEQ has to hear public opinion. But he says the state is also leery of Aardema’s operation.

“We let him know there’s a chance we’re going to deny this,” McCann says, adding that the representatives who attended the community meeting “came away with the impression that there is a lot of concern.”

Kids puking while they play seems plenty of cause for concern.

Unfortunately, the incinerator has been a magnet for controversy since it opened in 1991. Wayne County wrestled with getting the four previous owners to comply before the state assumed enforcement responsibilities in 1998. Once Aardema purchased it in 1999, the legal wrestling match continued.

Neither Aardema nor his attorney, Bruce Goodman, returned Metro Times’ calls requesting comment. He has argued, Cedar says, that he’s taken steps to minimize emissions coming from the incinerator, but can’t satisfy the residents.

That argument might fly in another place. But we’re talking about Hamtramck, a town that’s always up for a fight. Good luck, Norm — you’re going to need it.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact this column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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