Gotham Gazette

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Sludge and Scandal

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 are frequent.

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:

  • incineration,
  • 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 Interest Board.

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 standards review
  • 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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