What’s that smell? the Hunts Point sewage plant

The NYOFCo plant.

By Jay Bachhuber

Every week or so, a rancid fog descends on Hunts Point. Invisible, yet impossible to ignore, the stink is powerful enough to send residents fleeing indoors to escape the eye-watering, stomach-churning odor.

“It smells worse than camel shit,” says Ricky Shepard, a homeless veteran of the Iraq War who collects scrap metal on Oak Point Avenue. With a look of disgust on his gaunt face, he spits out, “It’s toxic.”

The eye of the stench hurricane lies on Oak Point Avenue, between the East River and the Bruckner Expressway, where a red- and white-striped smokestack rises from the low-slung modern building of the New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFCo). Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the facility converts half of New York City’s sewage into fertilizer pellets to be sold primarily to Florida citrus farmers.

NYOFCo’s parent company claims on its website that its New York operation “is quick and efficient, completely supervised by the City and in full compliance with State and Federal environmental laws and regulation,” but Hunts Point-based organizations complain that the plant is unlicensed and obnoxious, and have enlisted the Columbia Law School Environmental Law Clinic to bolster their case.

Last August, The Point Community Development Corporation, working with the law clinic, released a report claiming that what was sold as a creative and environmentally sound solution to the city’s sewage treatment needs has instead been an example of corporate negligence and failed government oversight.

Since January 2005, the plant has been operating without a necessary permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The plant has intentionally released untreated sewage into the East River and spilled sludge onto the streets surrounding the plant, the Point’s report charges.

In response, Congressman José Serrano called on the state agency to shut down the plant until it complies with all regulations, a difficult demand considering that every day NYOFCo processes 600 tons of what’s flushed from toilets in the city.

NYOFCo General Manager John Kopec says the report uses misleading and outdated data. He says the release of sludge into the East River was a one-time event that occurred years ago and was addressed in a 2004 agreement between the company and the DEC.

Kopec also says that NYOFCo filed its permit application with the DEC on time, and has spent the past 20 months collaborating with regulators to work out details and fill in gaps in the application. NYOFCo’s lawyer has assured Kopec that they’re operating legally. “If there were any wrongdoings, they would take action. I’m sure of that,” he says.

A DEC spokesman, Kimberly Chupa, said NYOFCo is operating under the terms of its previous permit, and “currently, DEC is working with the facility to ensure that the renewal application and modifications are consistent with the consent order,” an agreement the company reached in court to improve its operation.

The plant has a number of multi-million dollar projects currently underway to control odor emissions. A new odor scrubber and a flue recirculation system are two of the ways NYOFCo is working to clean up its act. “It’s a continuous process. Our facility is 15 years old, and each time we add something the situation gets better,” Kopec said.

Hunts Point residents agree that the intensity and frequency of the odor from NYOFCo has decreased over the years, but, though some are resigned, others insist that more needs to be done. Advocates warn that the smell is a signal that the plant could endanger residents’ health

John, a mechanic who works near the plant but declined to provide his last name to avoid creating friction with his neighbor, says the plant produces “one of the nastiest smells you’ll ever smell.” He is happy, however, that it occurs less often now than it used to. When asked if he thinks the smell is a serious problem, John shrugs and says it’s “just a part of being a part of Hunts Point.”

Marian Feinberg, a nurse who has been working on environmental issues with various community groups in Hunts Point for over a decade, has a less benign attitude towards NYOFCo. She says that the level of community mobilization against NYOFCo has varied over the years, and gains have followed periods of strong community unity. “This is an issue where people are trying to grapple with strategies that can be successful,” she says.

The Point’s letter to the DEC is just the latest action in a long line of creative activism. Feinberg notes that in the late 1990s the odor in Hunts Point was so overwhelming that children were vomiting in the streets and contracting pink eye, and residents were suffering from chronic nausea, headaches and nose bleeds.

Led by the Hunts Point Awareness Committee, an environmental justice organization, in 1995 community groups hired the engineering firm “Odor Science and Engineering” to track the smells’ sources. The firm concluded that maintenance problems and engineering failures at NYOFCo were responsible for most of the odor, although a nearby city sewage treatment plant also contributed to the problem.

That report pressured NYOFCo’s owner, Synagro, a publicly-traded corporation that bills itself as “the largest recycler of biosolids in the U.S.” and has annual revenues of more than $330 million, into addressing some problems. However, Feinberg says that with a facility as large as NYOFCo’s, problems as simple as a garage door being left open can circumvent engineering improvements and lead to the release of noxious emissions.

Last year at St. Athanasius, a Catholic school on Southern Boulevard a half-mile from the plant, a teacher, Anthony Rosario, and his students distributed roughly 400 “Smelly Calendars” to residents. They asked them to use the calendars to mark which days had a strong odor, and file complaints on the city’s 311 hotline. Students also put together a TV program about NYOFCo that aired in every school controlled by the New York Archdiocese.

While she is proud of her students’ efforts, Marianne Kraft, the principal of St. Athanasius, is disappointed with the project’s outcome. She says there was little success getting residents to voice their complaints to the city. “When you call in to the DEP it’s so discouraging. It takes 45 minutes to make a five-minute call,” Kraft said.

Now, though, the DEP has set up a special Odor Hotline (347-239-9791) . It promises that inspectors will log and investigate each complaint. In addition, twice a week between November 27 and December 21 DEP inspectors will be in Hunts Point.

Nevertheless, with the support of Community Board 2, the school is planning to distribute calendars again for the new year.

In addition, a coalition of community groups has devised a new strategy to ensure Synagro listens. Last year the Interfaith Council for Corporate Responsibility worked with community groups to purchase enough shares of Synagro stock to file a shareholder resolution. The resolution proposing a study of health risks posed by NYOFCo was approved last spring by 31 percent of the shareholders. The report is to examine all emissions to “air, water and land, including releases of toxins, molds, pathogens, hazardous waste and hazardous air pollutants” and is expected in 2007.

As shareholders, community groups have secured meetings with Synagro’s head lawyer and its CEO Robert Boucher. On October 25, ICCR and community residents will meet with representatives of Synagro and NYOFCo to discuss the scope of the study and how it is to be performed. Leslie Lowe, the Program Director for ICCR’s Environmental Justice working group, believes it is important that the report’s findings be presented in a way that is easily understandable to members of the community.

Besides NYOFCo, Synagro operates a number of other biosolids recycling plants around the country, including ones in Elk Grove, California and Westchester, Florida. The California plant is only a mile from a residential area and the Florida plant is a mere 100 feet from upper-middle class homes. Synagro’s other plants, however, could not be more different from the Hunts Point facility.

In contrast to NYOFCo’s austere design and foreboding gates, David Baker, the Manager of Conservation Resources in Pinellas says the Westchester plant “looks like a park.” Baker says the grounds surrounding the plant are well landscaped, and after hours families take strolls and residents rollerblade around the sludge plant.

Neither of these plants causes the problems for their communities that NYOFCo does. Unlike NYOFCo, which Synagro acquired, they were built by Synagro using the latest odor control technology. Another crucial difference is that they only produce between 20 to 30 dry tons of fertilizer a day, as opposed to NYOFCo’s roughly 200 tons.

Despite its vastly larger scale, however, Kopec is confident that NYOFCo can blend into the community as well as Synagro’s other plants do. “We want to be here for a long time, and the only way we’re going to be here is by controlling odors,” he says.

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