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Ford's New, 'Earth-Friendly' Plant Wins Grudging Notice from Environmentalists

Can a producer of gas-burning, pollutant-emitting vehicles and people concerned about the environment ever learn to like each other? Probably not, but even ardent environmentalists are giving Ford Motor Co. high marks for its newest plant — even if they don't much care for what it makes.

Nov. 12—DEARBORN, Mich. — Can a producer of gas-burning, pollutant-emitting vehicles and people concerned about the environment ever learn to like each other? Probably not, but even ardent environmentalists are giving Ford Motor Co. high marks for its newest plant — even if they don't much care for what it makes.

Working with Michigan State University, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Detroit Edison and other partners, Ford has introduced a number of unusual environmental-related features at its new Rouge truck plant in Dearborn, which opened in April west of Detroit.

Most notable is a "living roof," 10.4 acres of green space atop the truck factory that is filled with plants, flowers and a perennial ground cover called sedum that insulates the building, thus lowering energy costs, and is expected to double the normal useful life of the roof.

There are other features, too, including a "Fumes to Fuel" system that converts paint exhaust fumes into electrical power; a storm water management system that collects water and reuses it for various purposes throughout the plant complex; and a plant floor illuminated by natural light that floods in through skylights.

Outside, there is a parking lot for new trucks that is covered with a porous material that absorbs rainwater, filters it through layers of stones and reuses it elsewhere in the plant. And there are 20,000 honeybees that live in three hives on plant grounds, helping — a Ford spokesman says — to "create a lush natural setting that attracts birds, insects and small animals."

"Nowhere else has there been a plant that has been built to such high environmental standards," said Russell Long, executive director of the Bluewater Network, a national environmental group that has been critical of Ford for failing to improve gas mileage as much as it has pledged to do.

But, Long is quick to add, "In and of itself, that's not necessarily worth applauding, given that the sod roof obscures both literally and figuratively the tremendous harm being caused by the F-150 pickups being built under it."

Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program, agrees. "Whatever they did to the plant is marvelous, but if they're producing pickup trucks that pollute too much, what are they accomplishing?"

Still, Ford maintains the plant — part of a $2 billion remake of its storied 600-acre, 87-year-old Rouge manufacturing complex that took in raw materials on one end and spit out cars on the other — and its recent introduction of a hybrid Ford Escape SUV represent a shift by the automaker to become a more responsible steward of global resources.

Anyone who sees old pictures of the Rouge complex would marvel at that viewpoint. Old pictures dating decades back show a quintessential American industrial plant spewing out clouds of smoke, soot, and all the pollutants that were associated with manufacturing at that time.

"We're working to improve environmental performance of our vehicles, but it can't be done overnight. We need to balance customer needs and environmental needs," said Jon Harmon, public affairs manager for the Ford division.

"People who buy F-150 pickups need a certain amount of capability for towing and hauling. And the F-150 is the most environmentally friendly pickup you can make," he said. "It's misguided to expect all customers to drive small cars that get 40 miles per gallon."

The criticisms aside, it is clear that the new truck plant is an attention-getter. Tours sell out regularly, and advanced reservations are required. A good number of its visitors want to see the plant because they want to see if its features can be duplicated elsewhere.

"Bill Ford said that he wanted to share what we are doing here with others, so the sustainable elements and the environmental aspects of the complex are being shown to others all the time," said James M. Graham, community renewal and heritage program manager at Ford.

"Every day we bring in people from other countries and governments ... who want to see how these ideas can be used," he said. "We know, for instance, that green roofs can be done on a lot of buildings, and the porous asphalt material we use on the grounds can be used effectively elsewhere."

The company has won 20 awards for various parts of the site or for the whole complex itself. They include Facility of the Year from Environmental Protection Magazine, the Gold LEED Award from the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Clean Air Excellence Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ford also has planted 30,000 bushes, flowers and trees on the Rouge complex that company officials say were selected to test the effectiveness of using certain plants to clean soil. And it is experimenting with a process in which plants remove and detoxify environmental pollutants in the soil.

Of course, looking at the stunned expressions on visitors' faces when they tour the plant, environmental considerations aren't likely to be the first things on their minds. There's too much activity, sensory stimulation and information to focus on much of anything else.

The center features two multimedia experiences — you sit in the middle of a huge room and are surrounded by sights and sounds. One focuses on the colorful history of the Rouge complex, while the other takes you through a visual tour of the building of trucks, from raw material to finished product. What's more, you experience the sounds, feel and smells associated with the construction as you sit and view the surrounding visual display.

But the centerpiece is the assembly floor. Lit by huge skylights, and featuring unusually wide aisles, the plant is much more quiet than most, and workers seem to be relaxed as they do their tasks.

There are features such as platforms that raise the trucks up to cut down on fatigue and stretching, and mechanisms that employees have dubbed "happy seats" that allow the workers to sit inside the trucks as they assemble the seats and interior.

Visitors enjoy the process via a system of overhead walkways that look down on the assembly line floor. Colorful signs and multimedia presentations are provided at each stop of the assembly process, and visitors can enjoy it all at their own pace without being rushed through.

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© 2004, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.