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Trouble in the air 

Hell froze over last Thursday. It must have. That’s the only explanation News Hits can find for the rare unity Hamtramck residents displayed on the issue of the city’s medical waste incinerator.

In a town that’s been in constant turmoil recently over municipal government, school government and religious observances, members of the little inner-city municipality gathered at the Hamtramck High School gymnasium to give G. Vinson Hellwig, the air quality division chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an earful on the incinerator, which is asking the state for a new operating permit. The permit request comes despite the fact that the incinerator — one of only 115 or so remaining in the country and the only one in Michigan that burns medical waste including body parts — has been out of compliance with its current state permit for five years. Michigan has sued the incinerator over the violations.

During a three-hour show of solidarity, residents sent Hellwig and Michigan Waste Services owner Norm Aardema one message: The incinerator must go.

Rob Cedar, a Hamtramck city councilman and leader of the Hamtramck Environmental Action Team, calls the issue “a unifying force,” adding, “When you’re speaking of clean air and children, who’s against that?”

MDEQ assistant press secretary Bob McCann said that his office has yet to hear support for the incinerator except from its owner.

“It’s funny. Aardema told us people in the neighborhoods say the incinerator brings jobs to the community. We just don’t know where those people are,” McCann says.

Aardema has not returned calls from Metro Times.

Resident Steve Hughes theorizes that the only thing the incinerator’s excessive mercury emissions may have brought to his family is cancer. While his wife’s lymphoma is in remission, his mother was less fortunate. She died a couple years ago.

“What do we have to do? Hold our breath?” Hughes says. “This air belongs to us.”

Other testimony came from Hamtramck’s Deputy Mayor Chris Cornwell, whose office has received reports of syringes meant to be medical waste found in the incinerator’s parking lot. He says the facility is one of 15 to 20 Hamtramck establishments operating without a business license, an offense calling for a $500 fine and/or up to 90 days in jail.

Other anti-incinerator testimony came from Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, Michigan state Sen. Martha G. Scott and a representative from state Rep. Bill McConico’s office.

The MDEQ will receive public comments until Jan. 7, 2005. A decision will be made within the 29 days following.

McCann says that given the state’s lawsuit against the incinerator and the bent of public opinion, he’ll be surprised if the permit is approved.

Residents of Hamtramck are praying he’s right.

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