Environment / Health / News

Monitors hired to nose out NYOFCo stench

File photo by Jolie Rubin

The plant on Oak Point Avenue has been the scene of many demonstrations.

"Not good enough," residents tell state

Under a cloud of uncertainty about its future following the loss last month of its contract with the city, the embattled sewage-to-fertilizer company NYOFCo now faces a new challenge: around-the-clock scrutiny of its odor by an independent team of engineers.

But at a public meeting at the Point CDC on April 29, skeptical residents and advocates angrily questioned the engineers and state officials about the new strategy.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation imposed the new requirement on NYOFCo, making it pay for monitors who will measure the smells within a mile of the plant on Oak Point Avenue.

Opponents of NYOFCo said awful smells reach far beyond that area, and objected that no public outreach has been planned to alert the community to the new way to complain.

They predicted the system would prove as ineffective as using the city’s 311 system has, because, they said, the plan has no teeth to force NYOFCo to respond to the monitors’ findings.

In June, NYOFCo will lose its main source of raw materials and money, when the city stops trucking half the sludge from its 14 sewage treatment plants to Hunts Point and begins shipping it to landfills instead. But the company says it plans to stay open.

“I thought I was going to make a party with NYOFCo leaving,” said resident Eva Sanjurjo, who runs the Coster Street daycare center, Eva’s Kids. “Instead, we’re going to have another generation of asthma people.

“We have trained, educated people” to report smells to the city, she said. “We’ve done this and we haven’t gotten anywhere.”

How to complain

Residents can register an odor complaint beginning May 6 by calling 1-800-679-6676.

Instead of 311, beginning May 6, the DEC has set up an 800 number that will be answered by trained operators with a script, a member of the engineering firm hired by the state explained. Steve Meersma of TRC Engineering said trained odor inspectors will be required to respond within 30 minutes by going to the place the call came from. Callers will be asked to identify the location, as well as the “character” of the smell, and will be asked to provide contact information so they can be informed of the outcome of their complaint.

“What is DEC going to do? Will it take another 15 years to shut them down? I know that we’re going to smell it,” said Ralph Morales, executive director of the State Senate Puerto Rican/Latino Caucus, which is headed by Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., directing his remarks to Suzanne Mattei, the DEC’s regional director for New York City.

Mattei, who has tightened the regulations governing NYOFCo since taking office in 2007, told the agitated crowd at the Point’s Live from the Edge Theater that the state is doing what it can to improve air quality and hold NYOFCo accountable.

Mattei defended her agency against criticism that more concrete action is needed from the state. “We completely rewrote the solid waste permit,” she said, adding that the old permit was too vague, but added that the air permit her department must provide NYOFCo is in “a bit of a limbo.”

NYFOCo will be required to pay TRC to monitor odors, but the engineering team will work independently out of an office in the Banknote building on Lafayette Avenue, and will report its findings to the DEC.

The state and NYOFCo also have to do a more effective job letting the public know of the new initiative, said people at the meeting.

“You’re asking a lot of this community,” said Siddhartha Sanchez, community liaison for immigration and environmental affairs for Congressman Jose E. Serrano. “The onus is on us. How many complaints will it take?”

Unless NYOFCo is fined for polluting the air, he added, nothing will change. “We’ve had 100 complaints, but we haven’t had one fine,” he said.

Sanchez was among those who said the monitoring wouldn’t extend far enough into residential Hunts Point. “Half of that circle, no one lives there,” he said, pointing out that much of the area to be monitored is in the East River.

“This is where they smelled it the most,” Mattei responded, then added that “If there’s a real trend of complaints” from outside the one-mile radius, people could call DEC directly.

“There are problems we haven’t been able to figure out” that create the plant’s foul odors, she said, adding that the new odor monitoring process will help DEC understand “what’s going on at this plant that has to be fixed.”

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