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If The Factory Smells, Is it Environmentally Offensive?
T he New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFC) looks like a plastic Fisher Price toy—colorful and geometric with blue trim, shiny aluminum siding, and a red and white striped smokestack. If it weren’t for the stench of burnt feces, NYOFCO would pass for just another factory in the South Bronx producing industrial parts. It’s the smell that distinguishes it.
“The material itself has an odor caused by natural products of decay,” Peter Scorzielli, plant manager of NYOFCO, says in the company’s well-ventilated conference room. “It’s the same type of odor as rotting leaves. It’s not classified as hazardous material.”
The material NYOFCO deals with is processed sewage called “sludge.” NYOFCO trucks in the sludge from waste water treatment plants, breaks it up, and bakes it into small fertilizer pellets it then sells to orange and soybean farmers in Florida and the Midwest. New York City pays NYOFCO and its parent company—Synagro, a Houston-based waste management firm—$135.01 for every wet ton of sludge it hauls. Then NYOFCO turns a profit for every pound of pellets it sells to farmers. The city began recycling sludge in 1992 after it banned its previous form of waste disposal, ocean dumping.
“The material we deal with is controversial,” Scorzielli acknowledges. “But we provide a valid service for the city. We recycle waste.”
South Bronx environmental groups consider NYOFCO’s smell more foreboding. “If it smells bad, something is wrong,” says Jaime Rivera, an organizer for the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition.
The coalition, along with three other activist organizations—Sustainable South Bronx, Mothers on the Move, and The Point—call NYOFCO a major community pollutant. Residents blame the company’s stench and smokestack emissions for countless local health problems such as nausea, headaches, irritated eyes, and asthma, which affects twice as many Hunts Point residents as people in other neighborhoods, according to city Department of Health statistics.
A physician at the nearby Lincoln Hospital’s asthma clinic said that no direct, empirical research links NYOFCO to the neighborhood’s high asthma rates, particularly since Hunts Point is filled with such other pollutants as waste transfer stations, power plants, and diesel fumes from trucks. “The South Bronx is the seat of asthma in the country,” says Dr. S.K. Venkapram. “It’s tough to nail down one cause.”
Residents feel the health effects of NYOFCO more viscerally. “My stomach gets torn up when I smell it,” says Silkia Martinez, who lives roughly two miles from the plant. “The smell is something that doesn’t let you balance your day. When I smell it, I go back upstairs to my apartment.”
Plant management, well-versed in the community’s complaints, sympathizes, but points out that NYOFCO complies with the city’s environmental standards. “Our ambient air quality standards are set by the state and we are well within compliance,” Scorzielli says. “The standard takes into account how emissions impact the surrounding environment.”
NYOFCO’s effect on its surrounding environment is regulated by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both of which oversee its permits for waste management, air quality, sludge composition, and land application.
NYOFCO currently operates under Title V of the Clean Air Act, which requires it to self-monitor and submit the results of smokestack tests to the city and local community board every six years. The company is also responsible for checking for toxic substances often found in urban sludge, including metals, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Although NYOFCO has violated environmental standards, most recently in September when one of its smokestacks exploded, the Department of Environmental Conservation awarded it a new, 16-year permit in the fall of 2001.
Beth Petrillo, an EPA scientist in the biosolids department, calls NYOFCO’s air quality and sludge regulations “stringent” and says there are “zero pathogens” in the sludge. “DEC comes after everybody,” Petrillo says. “I think NYOFCO’s doing as much as they can do.”
But another scientist, Ellen Harrison of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, disagrees. In academic research papers, Harrison has outlined growing public health concerns associated with sludge and its land application. “Sludge contains a nice array of organic and inorganic chemicals,” Harrison says over the phone. “There are a number of us who believe that the current rules do not regulate enough of them.”
In one paper, Harrison recommends that the federal government update the Clean Air Act and begin a series of investigations into the often-mysterious composition of the sludge, its public health risks, the EPA’s reliance on out-dated research, and the lack of funding for policing sludge.
Even scientists know that the need to understand the composition of the sludge is more immediate for Hunts Point residents than for federal agencies. “I would consider the issues of what impact the plant has on the neighbors,” Harrison says. “Things that happen to neighborhoods: the nuisances of trucks, NYOFCO, its odor and fire hazards and air emissions.”
T he story of NYOFCO and Hunts Point is an old one, recently revived by a series of neighborhood protests. At one rally last fall outside the regional office of the Department of Environmental Conservation, schoolchildren, residents, and a neighborhood poet chanted, “No more asthma, no more asthma.” One person donned a black cloak and a white paper maché skeleton mask and held an oversized asthma inhaler like a king’s scepter. Another person wore a hot pink gas mask while ten neighbors offered testimonials about their health problems.
Eventually, a few protestors stormed into the building, a motley crew of mothers with babies, Catholic school children in uniform, and community organizers in “Green the Ghetto” T-s hirts. Demanding to see Thomas Kunkel, director of the DEC, they sat in the lobby of his office, amidst ferns and security guards, until Kunkel met with them for 15 minutes and promised to review their complaints.
About the protests, Frank Morero, a member of the local community board, says, “They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Part of the NYOFCO controversy lies in its location and the amount of sludge it processes: 60 percent of the city’s total waste.
“NYOFCO is burning the majority of the city’s sludge,” says one resident, Martinez. “They need to cut it down by half or more. Each borough should burn its own.”
Rivera considers the location of NYOFCO and the amount of sludge it processes part of “environmental racist behavior” towards low-income, minority communities. “Part of environmental justice is a fair share kind of thing,” he said. “What I’m getting, everyone else should be getting too.”
Rivera suggests that each community deal with its own waste, but it’s difficult to envision a NYOFCO in every neighborhood, for reasons of physical space and neighborhood aesthetics. Even if NYOFCO did shut down, the sludge would still have to go somewhere. The only other option, according to Petrillo, would be to ship the sludge by rail to an Arizona landfill.
“The issue of space and obligation is a tricky one,” says David Rosner, professor of sociomedical science at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Do we dump it on poor, rural communities rather than urban ones?”
New York Congressperson Serrano tried to address this question of environmental racism in 1999 when he began an investigation in the South Bronx. Although it did not produce anything solid or lead to the closing of NYOFCO, Serrano’s strategy—characterizing environmental racism as a civil rights violation rather than a health or pollution problem—foreshadows the future of these debates.
“We are in a real moment of transition,” Rosner says. “There is a whole new level of debate about environmental racism and the inability of science to answer questions about public health risks.”
In 1968, the EPA even passed a provision that determined that environmental justice was enough reason for the EPA to deny companies permits to build possible environmentally-offensive plants. “That was a big moment in the EPA,” Rosner says. “They’ve never used that provision, but it is intellectually important because it is part of the debate.”
Regardless of the civil rights implications and neighborhood protests, NYOFCO continues to operate. The inside of the plant provides the best look into the future.
The process of converting sludge into fertilizer pellets requires a complex engineering equation. Black sludge from the city’s waste water treatment plants travels on conveyor belts into a series of churning heaters in which high temperatures kill pathogens and turn the sludge’s consistency into a dry, cake-like dirt. The pellets, stored in one of several silos, get sent to their farmland destinations by railcar. All this happens in just over one hour, with NYOFCO processing 130 dry tons of sludge each day.
“The shut down of NYOFCO would be very difficult,” says the district manager of the local community board, John Roberts. If the city shuts down NYOFCO with no other alternative, the city would face a $1 million-per-day fine, Roberts says, based on a city mandate to ban other methods of waste disposal. “So if the city has that looming over them, they’re sort of stuck with NYOFCO.”
When the smell becomes too much, residents can call the Department of Environmental Conservation or NYOFCO to complain. NYOFCO has developed an “odor complaint form” to handle the four to five calls the control room receives each month. “Does the odor smell like any of the following things?” the form reads. “Rotten eggs, low tide, damp earth, garbage, burnt rubber, ammonia, paint thinner, gasoline.” Once the caller pinpoints the type of smell, NYOFCO sends an “odor specialist” to investigate.
But since NYOFCO has become a ten-year problem for its neighbors, cal ling the odor specialist to produce a report seems futile. “They hire their own inspectors,” Martinez charges. “Money buys anything.”
Regardless of what makes up the sludge and how much of it travels through Hunts Point, the smell from NYOFCO lingers. It permeates sweaters, socks, and pants. Hours later, anyone who has visited the plant still smells like burnt cereal, disinfectant, or human feces. It’s a souvenir for every visitor.
Nancy Cook is a freelance writer living in New York, who specializes in urban and cultural issues. She writes for t he Stamford Advocate , t he New York Sun , and Artnews .
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