Â When Alvarado Sorin gives a tour of the New York Organic Fertilizer Company’s plant in Hunts Point, which processes what was originally the city's raw sewage into fertilizer for farmers, she is sure to warn people about the stink. Few know that stench better. A consultant for the company, and a member of the local community board who serves as the Bronx community liaison for the company, Sorin takes
the call anytime the smells inside their plant get too much for local residents.
Even with a full quarter mile between the plant and the nearest residence, the calls
But ask some local residents, and they will say something else at the plant stinks. "The smell is not just a nuisance," says Elena Conte of Sustainable South Bronx, a Hunts Point environmental group. "It's what's in the smell that concerns folks."
Launched in 1993, the New York Organic Fertilizer Company is the
largest facility of its type in the world. It processes up to 40
percent of the city's treated sewage sludge (up to 300 tons a day,
according to the company), and has the capacity to handle the city's
entire output, if needed. It is the flagship operation for Synagro Technologies Inc., a Houston-based company that bills itself as an "industry
leader in biosolids, sludge, and residuals management."
At first glance, the conversion of sewage into commercial fertilizer
appears to be an environmental "win-win." Both the 1972 Clean Water Act
and the 1988 Ocean Dumping Act put limitations on how cities dispose of
the solid waste that passes down toilets, sinks, and gutters. Currently, the
choice boils down to one of three options:
- landfill dumping,
- conversion to fertilizer.
In its effort to encourage
the third option, the Environmental Protection Agency "strongly
supports" the efforts of industry groups such as the National Biosolid
Partnership to educate cities about fertilizer recycling.
That's where the trouble starts. Environmental groups, decrying the
cozy relationship between the EPA and industry, have argued over the
last two decades that the standards used to determine the safety of
recycled sewage are dangerously lax. Of particular concern are
so-called "Class B" fertilizers which undergo little more than a brief
heating process to kill bacteria and can be spread in certain limited
environments such as open pastureland. In 2002 Synagro settled out of
court with the family of Shayne Conner, a New Hampshire man who died
in his sleep a month after the spread of such
fertilizer on a neighboring field. Although the settlement required
that the family members state the lack of scientific evidence of the
company's complicity, the EPA, in the wake of similar suits, announced
last month that it would review its safety standards on 15 chemicals found in recycled sewage sludge and, according to the New York Times, look for pathogens.
As a producer
of Class A fertilizer -- a more tightly regulated product that can be
mixed with other forms of fertilizer for general agricultural use --
the New York Organic Fertilizer Company's Bronx plant runs its sludge through an intense heating process designed
to kill pathogens. Nevertheless, there are concerns over heavy metals, such as iron, lead, and zinc, a byproduct of both industrial waste and human waste.
There was also concern when, last September, there was an explosion at the plant, caused by a volatile mixture of oxygen-rich air and swirling
dust inside a silo.
Although the explosion caused no injuries and did damage only to the
silo's interior, the New York Post headline -- "Dung Flung" -- caused some apprehension halfway around the world, in Hawaii.
There, the Honolulu City Council was considering a proposal by Synagro for a similar plant. That is undoubtedly why the company purchased tickets to fly Alvarado Sorin and Marta Rivera, chair of community board 2, to Hawaii, where they offered testimony favorable to the company.
"I felt it was very important for your community to know that sometimes
media can get a hold of a story and sensationalize it," said Rivera,
according to a printed transcript of the December 3 testimony.
"Unfortunately, people do not want to hear the truth and the truth is
Synagro has been a responsible company."
This little junket caused a different kind of explosion. The Daily News ran two stories in
January playing up the quid-pro-quo element of the emerging scandal while
also hinting at a possible investigation by the city's Conflict of
The Conflict of Interest Board declines to say now whether or not a
complaint has been filed. Rivera, meanwhile, resigned her
position as chair of community board 2, though she still remains a member of the
board. At a February 3 meeting to hire her successor, Alvarado Sorin,
announced that she, too, was resigning as chair of the board's economic
development committee but not from the board itself. She took responsibility for the decision to invite
Rivera to Honolulu, which she said in retrospect was wrong, but blasted fellow board members for feeding the media the story.
Speaking a day later in the conference room at the New York Organic
Fertilizer Company facility, Sorin sounded more conciliatory, focusing on the facility's ongoing attempts to maintain an
open dialogue with its harshest critics.
"The community organizations are asking for more accountability from
the managers and to have more input," she says. "My operations people
have no problem sitting with the people if that's what they want."
Marian Feinberg, health coordinator for the South Bronx Clean Air
Coalition, has yet to be convinced. Earlier this month, she and other community members participated
in a sitdown with managers following a tour of the plant. It wasn't the first
time her organization and the plant had attempted a clear-the-air
session, but, while the
meeting was long -- "We were there long enough that we all had to go
home and wash our coats and clothes," she says -- she does not believe that much was accomplished.
More important than direct communication, Feinberg says, is the
pressure finally coming from outside the borough. The demand for better, cleaner process is increasing, thanks to:
- the EPA
- the personal injury lawsuits
- a pending state
Department of Environmental Conservation review of the New York Organic
Fertilizer Company's airborne emissions permit
- the growing number of grass roots groups willing to trade
information and keep one another apprised of the latest developments
"We will meet whatever guidelines the state and federal governments set
for us," Sorin says.
It is doubtful whether that pressure will be enough to result in zero odors and close-to-zero emissions, which is why plant opponents have created a slogan that has become their rallying cry -- "clean it up or shut it down."
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