Fertilizer for Thought

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Fighting for years to reduce the record-high asthma rates in their neighborhoods, some South Bronx residents are latching on to a little-known federal provision in order to closely scrutinize a sludge processing plant in Hunts Point. Last week, they took a step closer to succeeding.

On April 17, local environmental groups, elected officials and residents asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to issue the New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFCo) a federal permit with the strictest possible guidelines to limit the level of pollutants it can emit.
Under contract with the city, the company handles close to 50 percent of the city’s sewage sludge, turning much of it into fertilizer pellets used on citrus orchards in Florida and corn and soybean farms in Ohio.

Pointing to pollutants the factory lets off each day—and the historic levels of asthma in the area, twice the national average among children—neighborhood residents have tried to get the city to shut it down since construction began there over a decade ago.

The city has taken some of their concerns seriously. In 1995, after receiving numerous complaints about foul smells, the city fined the company $1,060 for odor violations. Since then, NYOFCo has hired an odor consultant and upgraded its pollution control equipment. Community members, however, say bad smells linger.

Now, with a new federal permit on the books, they are grasping for another chance to clean up NYOFCo. In 1997, the federal Environmental Protection Agency enacted Title V of the Clean Air Act, requiring that all major facilities that emit certain pollutants obtain a special operating permit. The permit requires companies to conduct more extensive tests and to submit the results to the state annually.

It is up to the state to determine how extensive the permit guidelines are, and members of Sustainable South Bronx, a local environmental group, hope they will be strict—particularly, they say, since the company already violates other state guidelines. Under DEC permits, NYOFCo was supposed to test all six of the ovens in which it dries out its sewage by 1996. To date, the company has only tested three. Plant manager Peter Scorziello says they plan to complete the rest in the near future.

The company’s laxity may have finally raised some red flags at the DEC. While the agency was primed to award the company the basic federal permit before the hearing, DEC Regional Director Mary Ellen Kriss told City Limits last week that the agency is likely to make some changes to the draft permit, perhaps requiring that NYOFCo run tests on its stacks more often.

If that happens, the neighbors say they will breathe a little deeper. “It’s no coincidence that the area known as asthma alley–the South Bronx and east and central Harlem–is [within range] of the fumes from NYOFCo and other plants,” said Omar Freilla of Sustainable South Bronx.