Steps taken to reduce Bronx sewage stench

October 8, 2008 6:00:32 PM PDT
State environmental officials said Wednesday they were taking steps to reduce putrid odors emanating from a sewage-processing plant that has prompted years of complaints and a recent lawsuit from residents. The privately run New York Organic Fertilizer Co. plant in the Bronx must install an air pressure alarm to help keep odors from escaping, among other measures, as part of an agreement to renew its permit, said state Department of Environmental Conservation regional director Suzanne Mattei.

The company also must prevent unprocessed sewage sludge from building up excessively and must pay for an independent monitor, Mattei said.

"We needed to do a major technical review of all of their operations to identify all the different points in the sludge process that could generate odors," Mattei said, adding that the new requirements target "each of the areas that odors can come from."

"I can't promise we'll get to perfection, but we believe substantial improvements can be made," Mattei said.

The plant transforms city sewage into fertilizer pellets. It is owned by Houston-based Synagro Technologies Inc., which operates in 33 states as America's largest recycler of organic waste. Synagro didn't immediately respond to a telephone message Wednesday.

State regulators plan to modify the company's permit further to include even more specific odor monitoring and control measures, but so far the company hasn't agreed to the additional steps, Mattei said.

State regulators also said they intend to tighten regulations that allow the company to release emissions through stacks, Mattei said. She said they aimed to do so when the plant's air pollution permit comes under review for renewal, Mattei said.

Specifically, regulators want to test additional chemicals and tighten controls on the equipment used in that process, she said.

"We know more about the sludge pelletization process than we did when this plant first opened" in 1993, Mattei said. "We really want to modernize the controls at this plant."

In July, residents of the South Bronx's Hunts Point neighborhood sued New York Organic Fertilizer Co. and the city, saying odors from the company's plant and a nearby city-run sewage facility were sapping their quality of life and creating health problems.

The city-run plant takes in the waste of about 600,000 New Yorkers.

The Bronx residents' lawyer, Albert Huang, said in an e-mail message Wednesday that legal action against the plants would continue until the facilities agree to "binding legal commitments to eliminate all nuisance odors."

"The state's draft permit reaffirms what our clients have long been saying - the noxious odors from the sludge plant are a continuing plague on the air they breathe and are interfering big-time with the quality of life of Hunts Point residents," wrote Huang, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The national nonprofit filed the suit on the residents' behalf. They are not seeking monetary damages but want improvements to stop the smell.

The new permit requirements were unrelated to the lawsuit, Mattei said.

New York Organic Fertilizer Co.'s permit expired in 2005, but under state law, the plant was allowed to continue operating as it pursued the renewal, she said.

Since the permit expired, residents' complaints and violations found by inspectors prompted state regulators to take action, Mattei said.

The permit for the city-run plant was modified on Sept. 25 to tighten emissions standards in response to stack testing, Mattei said.

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