Environment / Health

Sludge plant process shuns Hunts Point residents

Photo by Marguerite Adams

The building that housed NYOFCo may soon be processing sludge again.

The city will soon decide who will take the place of former sludge processing plant NYOFCo, which closed in 2010, and Hunts Point residents will have no say as to who that will be.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection began taking proposals from applicants looking to process sludge, shortly after announcing last fall that it had cut its ties with the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, which processed 70 percent of the city’s treated sewage amid 16 years of complaints over foul odors.

One of the dozen-or-so applicants is NYFCo’s parent company, Texas-based Synagro Technologies, which is vying for the right to bring a newer version of its sludge-to-fertilizer recycling operation to the building it continues to lease on the shore of the East River in Hunts Point. Synagro claims it has solved the odor problem.

City officials have said they will select the new sludge processor this summer, with no input from the community, despite the fact NYOFCo’s presence became the source of a steady drumbeat of public criticism, culminating in lawsuits brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the state Attorney General.

The DEP has declined to answer questions about the process of choosing a new applicant and refused to make public the businesses that have applied.

“It’s frustrating that the public can’t say anything until it’s a done deal,” said Maria Torres, who heads the Hunts Point Monitoring Committee, established by the DEP to meet with DEP officials once a month to discuss pollution problems that stem from the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant and NYOFCo.

“I understand they don’t want to taint the selection process,” Torres said, but added, “We could end up right back where we were.”

Residents will be afforded an opportunity to comment on the city’s choice of a new tenant at public forums only after officials have announced their selection, according to DEP officials.

Although the city’s decision is still months away, Synagro representatives have been meeting with Hunts Point opinion-makers in an attempt to assure them that they will be better neighbors this time, if selected. They flew some of them to Synagro’s sludge-processing plant in Pinellas County, Florida last year to show them a plant they say employs new technology that eliminates the kind of odors that made NYOFCo infamous.

In March, they met with local officials and the monitoring committee to tout the new technology, but were greeted with icy skepticism.

A publicist hired by Synagro, Ethan Geto, told the community board and monitoring committee members the new techology is “the most odor-free technology” available.

Community Board 2 District Manager Rafael Salamanca responded, at the meeting, saying, “We understand you have new technology, but 20 years of suffering from NYOFCo is totally irresponsible, and I definitely oppose Synagro coming into this community.”

In addition to using new methods, Synagro officials have told local advocates that under their proposal, much of the sludge would be piped into the plant from the nearby Wastewater Treatment Plant, rather than being trucked in, as in the past.

“We understand the history. The community was outraged,” Geto said. “What we’re saying is that is over. It’s a new day.”

One of 10 plaintiffs in the suit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fox St. resident Fred Febre, says he is impressed with Synagro’s new offering.

“I’m one who says there’s no reason to block them if they’re doing it correctly,” said Febre, who serves on the monitoring committee, adding about the Synagro-run plant in Florida, that he’d been told “If you didn’t know it was a waste facility, you wouldn’t be able to guess.”

But Febre added, if the city chooses Synagro, and “if there is a problem, they’re going to hear from us.”

A lawyer who represented Febre and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was more guarded. “Does it eliminate odors? No,” said Albert Huang after the trip to the Florida plant. “Does it reduce them significantly? Yes.”

But Huang added, “It’s comparing apples and oranges,” because the industrial sludge used at the Florida plant is less stinky than human waste.

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