Fertilizer plant was the object of years of neighborhood protest
NYOFCo, the sewage processing plant with the candy-striped smoke stack that has afflicted Hunts Point residents with sickening smells for the last 18 years, has lost its contract with New York City.
But in a defiant statement, the company said it would keep operating, and warned that without the money it earns from the city, it would not be able to make changes that would curb the odor from the plant.
And standing outside the gates of the plant two weeks after the city announced its decision, advocates who have battled the New York Organic Fertilizer Company for years vowed to press the city and to continue a lawsuit against the company.
A veteran of war in the Iraqi desert compared NYOFCo’s smell to camel dung. Others likened it to rotting corpses. The stench sent swimmers and picnicking families fleeing from nearby Barretto Point Park.
The object of protest marches, law suits and “toxic tours,” the plant has in recent times come under increased scrutiny by state regulators, who tightened restrictions in an effort to curb the stench.
But economics, not environmental or health concerns led the city to decide to terminate the New York Organic Fertilizer Company’s contract to turn nearly half of what is flushed down city toilets into fertilizer pellets. At a budget hearing on March 8, the commissioner of environmental protection told the City Council that his agency would save $18 million if the sludge that is now trucked to Hunts Point were buried in landfills instead.
Losing its contract with the city means NYOFCo will have lost its primary supplier of sludge for conversion into fertilizer.
Rep. Jose Serrano was exultant. “Today is the beginning of the end,” he said.“It is an end to the burning eyes, the coughs, the missed school days, even the asthma attacks, all conditions triggered by NYOFCo’s acrid odors.”
But in a written statement, Ethan Geto of the public relations firm Geto & de Milly, Inc. said, “If the City ultimately terminates its contract with NYOFCo, the facility nevertheless will keep operating into the future.”
He warned that without a city contract, “NYOFCo will not have the capital to finance the planned fast-track, wholesale overhaul of the plant to install modern, high-tech equipment that would eliminate odors and dramatically improve the plant’s operations.”
A plaintiff in the law suit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Lucretia Jones, said the city’s decision was “a victory for us,” but added that she and the other plaintiffs are “still wary” that NYOFCo may bring in sludge from elsewhere in the future.
NYOCo’s statement questioned the city’s rationale, contending that landfills contribute to global warming and pollute water, while the fertilizer pellets “are widely used to enrich soil for agricultural and related uses.”
Standing outside the plant in a driving rain with representatives of For a Better Bronx, The Point CDC and Sustainable South Bronx, Cerita Parker of Mothers on the Move called the city’s decision “an important first step.”
The advocates criticized the city, however, for failing to inform or involve them before announcing its decision. Reading a list of demands, they said they were concerned about plans to dump the sludge on another community, called for city and state regulators to convene a meeting with local stakeholders and insisted that DEP Commissioner Cas Holloway meet with the Hunts Point Monitoring Committee, which holds monthly meetings with city officials to focus on environmental conditions in the neighborhood.
The city’s decision is “something a lot of community organizations have been fighting for for years,” said Maria Torres, chief operating officer of The Point and director of the Hunts Point Monitoring Committee, in an interview. “We wanted them to be more responsible or to shut down.”
Up to 50 jobs could be lost if the plant closes, but Torres said, “You’re always sad about job loss, but you do want to hear about organizations being good neighbors.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. sounded a note of optimism, saying, “The health, well-being and quality of life of Hunts Point residents will no longer be compromised by incompetent industrial operations.”
Marian Feinberg of For a Better Bronx praised the earliest opponents of the plant, the Hunts Point Awareness Committee and the students, parents and teachers of PS 48 and St. Athanatius School. “We hope this marks a new day in which the DEP will listen to the wisdom of our experience and work with us to assure that the burden of NYC sewage waste will not harm any other community,” she said.
This is an update of the story originally posted on March 12, 2010. It appeared in the April issue of The Hunts Point Express.