City Moves to End a Bronx Olfactory NightmareBy SAM DOLNICK
Barbara White no longer dries her clothes outside. Lucretia Jones has stopped hosting backyard barbecues. Tanya Fields keeps her windows shut tight year-round.
For years, these neighbors in Hunts Point in the Bronx have battled a common plague: an acrid stench that hangs over the area like a black cloud, clinging to clothing, keeping children home from school, choking neighborhood life.
Some compare the smell to a filthy toilet, others to rotting meat; but everyone agrees that the stench comes from behind the gates of the New York Organic Fertilizer Company. The company’s Hunts Point plant processes sludge from 14 of the city’s sewage plants, amounting to nearly half of the city’s waste, and converts it into high-grade fertilizer pellets.
But now, after years of lawsuits, protests and complaints, beleaguered residents seem poised to win a major victory: city officials say they plan to cancel the $34-million-a-year contract with the company, effective June 30.
Caswell F. Holloway, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said the city can save roughly $18 million a year by sending the waste to landfills instead. “We plan to make this happen this year and aggressively pursue more cost-effective beneficial reuse of biosolids,” Mr. Holloway said during testimony before the City Council earlier this week.
The company’s contract runs through 2013, but a spokesman said the city plans to end the contract by June 30.
“This is a huge victory,” said Representative José E. Serrano, who has fought for years to close the plant. “It was horrible – the smell, the stench. People living in the poorest congressional district in the nation, in many cases with very little education, knew this was something they could not tolerate.”
Community advocates have fought the plant for years. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the plant on behalf of a community group called Mothers on the Move along with 10 local residents. Last year, the state attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, also filed a public-nuisance lawsuit against the company. A settlement is currently being negotiated, said Albert Y. Huang, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mark McCormick, a senior official at Synagro, the plant’s parent company, said the settlement would include upgrading the plant’s technology in an attempt to mitigate the smell.
Everyone in the Hunts Point area has stories about the inconvenience and distress caused by the smell. It aggravated children’s asthma, they say. It forced grandmothers to leave their gardens untended, families to cancel picnics, and schools to hold recess indoors.
“It smells like a decaying body,” said Wilfredo Gebre, who noted that the smell was especially bad on hot summer days.
But the stink was more than just a nuisance. For many, it became a symbol of the city’s disregard for Hunts Point, a neighborhood made up predominantly of low-income and minority families.
The New York Organic Fertilizer Company “meant everything that was unfair about the treatment of the Bronx,” said Mr. Serrano.
Wanda Salaman, executive director of Mothers on the Move, said the plant was just another instance of the city treating Hunts Point as a dumping ground.
“Would they build something like that next to Mayor Bloomberg’s house?” she said inside her group’s office, from which she can sometimes smell the Oak Point Avenue plant a mile away. Her colleague, Thomas Assefa, nodded his head. “It’s an issue of race and class,” he said.
Mr. McCormick of Synagro said they were still hoping to find a resolution with the city.
“We’re going to reach out to the city and see what we can do short of terminating the contract,” he said, adding that the plant employs some 50 people. “At this point, we’re open to discussing anything to help them out, whether it’s volume or price or other ways we can help work with each other.”
While the city maintains that its decision has been made, local advocates cautioned that it was not yet time to celebrate. Even if the city voids the contract as planned, the plant operators could still sign a new deal with a different municipality to process even more sewage sludge.
“Our struggle doesn’t end just because the city has a different strategy,” said Ms. Salaman. “They could just take it to another poor neighborhood somewhere else. Just because it’s not in our backyard doesn’t mean that the problem is over.”