If The Factory Smells, Is it Environmentally Offensive?




T

he
New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFC) looks like a plastic
Fisher Price toy—colorful and geometric with blue trim, shiny
aluminum siding, and a red and white striped smokestack. If it weren’t
for the stench of burnt feces, NYOFCO would pass for just another
factory in the South Bronx producing industrial parts. It’s
the smell that distinguishes it. 


“The
material itself has an odor caused by natural products of decay,”
Peter Scorzielli, plant manager of NYOFCO, says in the company’s
well-ventilated conference room. “It’s the same type of
odor as rotting leaves. It’s not classified as hazardous material.” 


The
material NYOFCO deals with is processed sewage called “sludge.”
NYOFCO trucks in the sludge from waste water treatment plants, breaks
it up, and bakes it into small fertilizer pellets it then sells
to orange and soybean farmers in Florida and the Midwest. New York
City pays NYOFCO and its parent company—Synagro, a Houston-based
waste management firm—$135.01 for every wet ton of sludge it
hauls. Then NYOFCO turns a profit for every pound of pellets it
sells to farmers. The city began recycling sludge in 1992 after
it banned its previous form of waste disposal, ocean dumping. 


“The
material we deal with is controversial,” Scorzielli acknowledges.
“But we provide a valid service for the city. We recycle waste.” 


South
Bronx environmental groups consider NYOFCO’s smell more foreboding.
“If it smells bad, something is wrong,” says Jaime Rivera,
an organizer for the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. 


The
coalition, along with three other activist organizations—Sustainable
South Bronx, Mothers on the Move, and The Point—call NYOFCO
a major community pollutant. Residents blame the company’s
stench and smokestack emissions for countless local health problems
such as nausea, headaches, irritated eyes, and asthma, which affects
twice as many Hunts Point residents as people in other neighborhoods,
according to city Department of Health statistics.  


A
physician at the nearby Lincoln Hospital’s asthma clinic said
that no direct, empirical research links NYOFCO to the neighborhood’s
high asthma rates, particularly since Hunts Point is filled with
such other pollutants as waste transfer stations, power plants,
and diesel fumes from trucks. “The South Bronx is the seat
of asthma in the country,” says Dr. S.K. Venkapram. “It’s
tough to nail down one cause.” 


Residents
feel the health effects of NYOFCO more viscerally. “My stomach
gets torn up when I smell it,” says Silkia Martinez, who lives
roughly two miles from the plant. “The smell is something that
doesn’t let you balance your day. When I smell it, I go back
upstairs to my apartment.” 


Plant
management, well-versed in the community’s complaints, sympathizes,
but points out that NYOFCO complies with the city’s environmental
standards. “Our ambient air quality standards are set by the
state and we are well within compliance,” Scorzielli says.
“The standard takes into account how emissions impact the surrounding
environment.” 


NYOFCO’s
effect on its surrounding environment is regulated by the Department
of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), both of which oversee its permits for waste management,
air quality, sludge composition, and land application.


NYOFCO
currently operates under Title V of the Clean Air Act, which requires
it to self-monitor and submit the results of smokestack tests to
the city and local community board every six years. The company
is also responsible for checking for toxic substances often found
in urban sludge, including metals, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, viruses,
and parasites. 


Although
NYOFCO has violated environmental standards, most recently in September
when one of its smokestacks exploded, the Department of Environmental
Conservation awarded it a new, 16-year permit in the fall of 2001. 


Beth
Petrillo, an EPA scientist in the biosolids department, calls NYOFCO’s
air quality and sludge regulations “stringent” and says
there are “zero pathogens” in the sludge. “DEC comes
after everybody,” Petrillo says. “I think NYOFCO’s
doing as much as they can do.” 


But
another scientist, Ellen Harrison of the Cornell Waste Management
Institute, disagrees. In academic research papers, Harrison has
outlined growing public health concerns associated with sludge and
its land application. “Sludge contains a nice array of organic
and inorganic chemicals,” Harrison says over the phone. “There
are a number of us who believe that the current rules do not regulate
enough of them.” 


In
one paper, Harrison recommends that the federal government update
the Clean Air Act and begin a series of investigations into the
often-mysterious composition of the sludge, its public health risks,
the EPA’s reliance on out-dated research, and the lack of funding
for policing sludge. 


Even
scientists know that the need to understand the composition of the
sludge is more immediate for Hunts Point residents than for federal
agencies. “I would consider the issues of what impact the plant
has on the neighbors,” Harrison says. “Things that happen
to neighborhoods: the nuisances of trucks, NYOFCO, its odor and
fire hazards and air emissions.” 



T

he
story of NYOFCO and Hunts Point is an old one, recently revived
by a series of neighborhood protests. At one rally last fall outside
the regional office of the Department of Environmental Conservation,
schoolchildren, residents, and a neighborhood poet chanted, “No
more asthma, no more asthma.” One person donned a black cloak
and a white paper maché skeleton mask and held an oversized
asthma inhaler like a king’s scepter. Another person wore a
hot pink gas mask while ten neighbors offered testimonials about
their health problems. 


Eventually,
a few protestors stormed into the building, a motley crew of mothers
with babies, Catholic school children in uniform, and community
organizers in “Green the Ghetto”

T-s


hirts.
Demanding to see Thomas Kunkel, director of the DEC, they sat in
the lobby of his office, amidst ferns and security guards, until
Kunkel met with them for 15 minutes and promised to review their
complaints. 


About
the protests, Frank Morero, a member of the local community board,
says, “They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” 


Part
of the NYOFCO controversy lies in its location and the amount of
sludge it processes: 60 percent of the city’s total waste. 


“NYOFCO
is burning the majority of the city’s sludge,” says one
resident, Martinez. “They need to cut it down by half or more.
Each borough should burn its own.” 


Rivera
considers the location of NYOFCO and the amount of sludge it processes
part of “environmental racist behavior” towards low-income,
minority communities. “Part of environmental justice is a fair
share kind of thing,” he said. “What I’m getting,
everyone else should be getting too.” 


Rivera
suggests that each community deal with its own waste, but it’s
difficult to envision a NYOFCO in every neighborhood, for reasons
of physical space and neighborhood aesthetics. Even if NYOFCO did
shut down, the sludge would still have to go somewhere. The only
other option, according to Petrillo, would be to ship the sludge
by rail to an Arizona landfill. 


“The
issue of space and obligation is a tricky one,” says David
Rosner, professor of sociomedical science at the Columbia University
Mailman School of Public Health. “Do we dump it on poor, rural
communities rather than urban ones?” 


New
York Congressperson Serrano tried to address this question of environmental
racism in 1999 when he began an investigation in the South Bronx.
Although it did not produce anything solid or lead to the closing
of NYOFCO, Serrano’s strategy—characterizing environmental
racism as a civil rights violation rather than a health or pollution
problem—foreshadows the future of these debates. 


“We
are in a real moment of transition,” Rosner says. “There
is a whole new level of debate about environmental racism and the
inability of science to answer questions about public health risks.” 


In
1968, the EPA even passed a provision that determined that environmental
justice was enough reason for the EPA to deny companies permits
to build possible environmentally-offensive plants. “That was
a big moment in the EPA,” Rosner says. “They’ve never
used that provision, but it is intellectually important because
it is part of the debate.” 


Regardless
of the civil rights implications and neighborhood protests, NYOFCO
continues to operate. The inside of the plant provides the best
look into the future. 


The
process of converting sludge into fertilizer pellets requires a
complex engineering equation. Black sludge from the city’s
waste water treatment plants travels on conveyor belts into a series
of churning heaters in which high temperatures kill pathogens and
turn the sludge’s consistency into a dry, cake-like dirt. The
pellets, stored in one of several silos, get sent to their farmland
destinations by railcar. All this happens in just over one hour,
with NYOFCO processing 130 dry tons of sludge each day. 


“The
shut down of NYOFCO would be very difficult,” says the district
manager of the local community board, John Roberts. If the city
shuts down NYOFCO with no other alternative, the city would face
a $1 million-per-day fine, Roberts says, based on a city mandate
to ban other methods of waste disposal. “So if the city has
that looming over them, they’re sort of stuck with NYOFCO.” 


When
the smell becomes too much, residents can call the Department of
Environmental Conservation or NYOFCO to complain. NYOFCO has developed
an “odor complaint form” to handle the four to five calls
the control room receives each month. “Does the odor smell
like any of the following things?” the form reads. “Rotten
eggs, low tide, damp earth, garbage, burnt rubber, ammonia, paint
thinner, gasoline.” Once the caller pinpoints the type of smell,
NYOFCO sends an “odor specialist” to investigate. 


But
since NYOFCO has become a ten-year problem for its neighbors, cal
ling the odor specialist to produce a report seems futile. “They
hire their own inspectors,” Martinez charges. “Money buys
anything.” 


Regardless
of what makes up the sludge and how much of it travels through Hunts
Point, the smell from NYOFCO lingers. It permeates sweaters, socks,
and pants. Hours later, anyone who has visited the plant still smells
like burnt cereal, disinfectant, or human feces. It’s a souvenir
for every visitor.





Nancy Cook is
a freelance writer living in New York, who specializes in urban and
cultural issues. She writes for t




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Stamford
Advocate



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New York Sun



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