MID-CITY — Two of the harshest critics of Saint John’s Health Center have joined forces to shine a light on what they believe to be public health issues and anti-union activity at the Catholic hospital.

The coalition of nurses and neighbors of the medical center, simply named Nurses & Neighbors, began meeting recently to raise awareness about a range of concerns that include the stench of raw sewage wafting from Saint John’s, possible health issues from the demolition of old hospital buildings believed to contain asbestos and lead, and alleged union busting by the administration.

Nurses & Neighbors most recently hosted a meeting last week in which several members of the City Council and Planning Commission attended. Representatives of the hospital were invited but did not attend.

“Although we recognize that individuals in the community may have questions and concerns about any large organization, we are reluctant to recognize this group which we believe is simply a front designed to leverage other issues,” Saint John’s spokesman Greg Harrison said.

He added that the California Nurses Association has been public about becoming involved in the establishment of the union as it has with other causes, not because it supports the cause, but because if wants to “embarrass the hospital to get something else — an agreement to circumvent the rights of employees in union organizing.”

Harrison also refuted claims that the hospital has engaged in union busting, noting that the decision to be represented by a union is made in a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, a process that Saint John’s has supported. He added that the hospital has an obligation to support the rights of employees who want to unionize and those who do not.

The nurses, who claim the hospital has spent thousands of dollars on union busting, decided to reach out to neighbors after seeing a sign that complained about the raw sewage odor at a house across the street from the hospital on Arizona Avenue.

“That gave us the idea there might be some dissent in the neighborhood,” James Moy, an organizer with the California Nurses Association, said.

The coalition is also urgently mobilizing in anticipation of the hospital requesting the City Council to approve a development agreement amendment that would postpone the construction of a parking garage for another 10 years, hoping city officials will consider some of the allegations involving the hospital before approving any changes to the contract.

One of the biggest issues tying the nurses and neighbors together is the smell of raw sewage that floats through the hospital and around the surrounding homes whenever a truck comes to vacuum the tanks where the waste collects. Neighbors have long contended that a design flaw in the hospital’s sewage system causes the problem.

Nurses claim that the patients have also suffered from the smell of raw sewage.

“The stench is on the floor, the stench comes through the drains in our units,” said one nurse, who declined to give her name for fear of backlash from the hospital. “Nurses are being told to go to employee health and nothing can be done.”

The concerns grew when more than 120 gallons of raw sewage flowed onto a street near Saint John’s during an evening in September, some of which made its way into the storm drain system. The incident occurred during a routine flushing of the hospital’s septic storage tank when a mechanical malfunction caused two tank pumps to go on simultaneously. Hospital officials said at the time that the increased pressure caused the spill where its drainage system meets the city sewage system.

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who attended the coalition’s meeting last week, said the hospital could have originally linked its septic system to the city sewage system.

“When they make the transfer from the holding bin to the truck, it is clearly noticeable,” he said. “Whether it’s a health hazard or not is a different question.”

He added that there are no laws on the books about a nuisance for smell, though one does exist for noise.

McKeown said City Hall cannot take enforceable action on the sewage issue unless there is another spill on the street. With regards to the odor wafting into the hospital, McKeown said the issue should be directed to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“We are monitoring the sewage situation and our city engineer and public works are talking to the hospital about how we can remedy this,” McKeown said. “We certainly let them know that spilling sewage on the street is not allowable and we are concerned about the odors but we don’t know under what law that could be pursued.”

McKeown said the council could negotiate for a cleaner sewage system when the development agreement is brought back for changes.

The proposed amendment to the development agreement has been filed preliminarily with City Hall but has not been scheduled for a City Council meeting. McKeown said the hospital might want to delay the parking garage because the lease for a bank on the corner of 23rd Street and Santa Monica Boulevard will soon expire, a piece of land that Saint John’s could be interested in.

“The hospital might want to acquire land and move things around and not build a parking structure where it is now,” he said. “They might want to go ahead and fix the entrance on Santa Monica Boulevard first.”

He called the entrance, which often is packed with cars, a safety hazard.

Harrison said city officials are reviewing the hospital’s request for the extension as well as an independent study that concluded Saint John’s can provide sufficient parking for doctors, employees, patients and visitors in the foreseeable future without building the garage.

Saint John’s recently completed construction of the Howard Keck Center, a landmark milestone in the medical center’s efforts to rebuild its campus after more than a third of its buildings were irreparably damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The hospital in 2005 also opened the Chan Soon Shiong Center for Life Sciences.

The two buildings sit behind the old 1950s hospital, which will soon be demolished.

Its demolition is also drawing concerns from neighbors about asbestos and whether there will be proper abatement.

“We would like some public oversight of their demolition and the process of abatement related to those hazardous materials,” Heacock said.

melodyh@smdp.com

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