The Pollution Is Coming from Inside the Stomach
Deciding where waste goes follows the fault lines of pre-existing power structures, damaging public health with the justification of cleaning up pollution.
It’s a bright, clear afternoon at Barretto Point Park in Hunts Point, a South Bronx neighborhood bordering the East River. The park is bustling; birthday parties and cookouts are clustered under blue nylon tents, kids play in the splash pad, stamping down and shrieking as geysers burst back at full force. I see a barge floating at the water’s edge with swimming pools retrofitted into its deck, lifeguards waiting on the gangplank to greet swimmers. A group of boys plays basketball on a court in the park’s northern border.
Today, Barretto Point is lush and green, its walkways clear of trash. It’s an oasis ringed by warehouses, auto shops, junkyards and factories, and some scattered apartments sitting further from the water. I can tell the park is a popular place to spend time on a weekend, and almost no one is here alone. The park smells like cut grass. When the wind blows, I taste sizzling meat from the barbecues and the faint, brackish smell of the East River.
It wasn’t always this way. Seven years ago, Barretto Point Park and its surrounding neighborhood of Hunts Point suffered from air so polluted and foul-smelling that residents experienced illness and depression, and some wouldn’t open their windows in the summer because the air could trigger an asthma attack. The culprit was a factory that flanked the park to the northwest, privately owned by the New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFCO), a subsidiary of waste treatment giant Synagro and contracted by the city to manage part of the wastewater treatment process. Despite its remote location at the edge of the river, the factory’s odor suffused the entire neighborhood. In 2006, a Hunts Point resident described the smell as “worse than camel shit.”
The NYOFCO plant has surprising origins – this factory, which spewed acrid smoke into the South Bronx air for nearly two decades, was built in response to a landmark 1988 anti-pollution law. The story of Hunts Point illustrates the problematic politics of water and waste. Although environmental reforms aim to share the broad benefits of a healthy environment, determinations on where and how waste is disposed still disproportionately impact poor and marginalized communities. Even environmentally-friendly practices require that someone, somewhere accept the mess. Deciding where waste goes follows the fault lines of pre-existing power structures, damaging public health with the justification of cleaning up pollution.
In 1988, the United States Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Ban Act and barred, once and for all, municipalities from jettisoning solid sewage byproducts into the ocean. This rule was written in part to target New York City, which previously dumped all of its waste offshore – an environmental disaster, but to the cash-strapped city government, ocean dumping proved much cheaper than alternatives. In 1989, Harvey W. Schultz, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), opined that the ocean dumping ban went into effect too quickly. “Sewage sludge cannot be banned. It will always be with us, in vast quantities, and it must go somewhere. The way to get out of the ocean is to find new disposal sites on land, but inland communities are resisting.” It cost the city $20 million to haul barges of sludge out to sea and the first year of land disposal was estimated to total $250 million, although one-time infrastructure updates accounted for much of the expense. Water systems had to be changed quickly to meet the EPA’s deadline, and New Yorkers grumbled as sewer improvements doubled their water bills. Without the option of disposing of waste in the ocean, the city had to balance the budget using three disposal methods: landfills, incinerators, and a set of practices called “beneficial use,” which describes the recycling of waste into environmentally useful products; this method was promoted by the EPA as the most earth-friendly alternative to the polluting ways of the past.
When the EPA banned New York City’s ocean dumping program, the DEP decided to switch over exclusively to beneficial use: all of the city’s waste would be processed and put to use growing healthy plants. Roughly half of the city’s sludge went to farms in Colorado and Texas, used to produce corn and winter wheat, and in 1991, the city contracted NYOFCO handle the rest at a new fertilizer pellet-making plant in Hunts Point. From 1993 to 2000, the plant operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, processing half of the city’s sludge into pea-sized pellets of fertilizer; it could process 69,000 pounds of sludge per hour. By 2010, the city was paying NYOFCO $30 million a year for the service. The fertilizer went primarily to Floridian citrus farms.
The factory was envisioned as an eco-friendly alternative to disposing of waste in the ocean, but proved incredibly harmful to the health of residents in the South Bronx neighborhood that housed it, reflecting a pattern of city policy ignoring public health concerns in lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. (Hunts Point is 76 percent Hispanic and 22 percent black.) In the eight months from October 1995 to May 1996, the plant was fined nine times for violating air quality regulations, and residents reported nausea, conjunctivitis, depression and headaches. A doctor at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx noted a 40 percent spike in hospitalizations for asthma in the five years since the plant had opened. Hunts Point residents fought back: in 1995, a firm hired by the Hunts Point Awareness Committee found that the plant’s negligence was to blame for the pollution, and in 2004, a group of nonprofits attempted to pressure NYOFCO’s parent company, Synagro, by purchasing shares and introducing a resolution that would require the company to report on toxins, molds, and pathogens emitted by their plants, which failed to pass but received some support at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Elena Conte, a member of Sustainable South Bronx, told The New York Times that she was “thrilled” by the reaction from Synagro’s then-chief executive and general counsel: “as soon as we introduced the resolution, they flew to New York.” Although the neighborhood activists got Synagro’s attention, reforms didn’t follow.
Despite sustained protest from residents, the pollution endured for seventeen years. The city had a stake in the continued operation of the fertilizer plant and refused to suspend its contract with NYOFCO; because the fertilizer plant processed half of the city’s sludge, finding another place to send it could be onerous and expensive.
In 2008, Mothers on the Move, a South Bronx advocacy group, partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to bring a public and private nuisance lawsuit against New York City challenging the operation of the plant, winning its closure two years later. The lawsuit’s settlement stipulated that that shipments of sewage to the processing plant would stop for two years while a city-run independent investigation took place, and earmarked $500,000 for improvements to Barretto Point Park. It also required that plants in the area must use the best odor control technology available, something that the existing factory had failed to do. Rather than meet these requirements, New York City terminated their contract soon after the settlement. Today, the plant sits vacant, and its red-striped smokestack no longer spews acrid smoke into the air.
The Hunts Point plant represented one way of disposing of waste by beneficial use: heating it into fertilizer pellets destined for farmland. When the NRDC lawsuit forced the city to close the fertilizer plant in 2010, the city needed to find a replacement that satisfied their environmentalist goals. And they did have other options. Biosolids can also be applied to soil directly, or stabilized with lime and used as a covering for mines or landfills. Bizarrely, municipal waste is also converted into commercial compost soils, the route New York City ultimately chose.
Other cities have done this before; the city of Milwaukee began making fertilizer from waste in 1926, an organic blend named Milorganite that you can buy from Wal-Mart, $14 for a 36-pound bag. On their website, the company states that “we’re creating value where others may only see waste.” Or you could try ComPRO, sourced from the bacterial fauna of Washington, D.C.; there is a tradition of using ComPRO to nourish the White House lawn that began, somewhat improbably, during the Reagan administration. In 2009, Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden was at the center of a minor scandal when high lead levels were detected in the ComPRO-nourished soil.
And since 2010, the waste of New Yorkers is processed and sold as WeCare Compost, priced at $22 per cubic yard. When the NYOFCO fertilizer plant in Hunts Point closed, the city signed a new contract with WeCare Organics, a company headquartered in the upstate New York town of Jordan. WeCare converts biosolids into compost, trucking sludge to facilities in rural Granville, Tremont, and West Hanover, Pennsylvania, where it is mixed with earthworms and decomposes – far from constituents who would balk at sewage-processing plants in their own neighborhoods, like the residents of Hunts Point. Better yet, WeCare’s services cost less than half what the city had paid previously, $11 million per year against NYOFCO’s $30 million.
WeCare is one of four companies that the city contracts to dispose of biosolids, and the total comes to $37 million. Adjusted for inflation, beneficial use is about $3 million more expensive than dumping sludge into the ocean was in 1993, a nine percent increase. Today, all of the city’s sludge is processed outside of the five boroughs; former DEP Commissioner Harvey Schultz’s concern that “inland communities are resisting” becoming disposal sites proved unfounded as well. It turns out that the environmentally-friendly reforms cost less than the the city’s leaders had feared when ocean dumping was first banned. And, for now, towns in rural Pennsylvania are willing to take the sludge.
Today, in Baretto Point Park, the sky is a transparent blue. But when it rains, the water will run down the sidewalks and into the sewer, where it mixes with waste from toilets, baths, sinks. It will make a short trip to the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, a city-run facility located few blocks northeast of the park. There, deep underground, pieces of trash – newspapers, umbrellas, soda cans – are separated from the water as it passes through a screen. Pumps carry the water up to the surface, channeling it into sedimentation tanks where it will sit for hours; grease rises to the surface and dirt, coffee grounds, sand, and sludge sink. (The oil is skimmed off, and apparatuses spinning like washing machines separate grit from sediment.) After settling, the water flows into aerated tanks teeming with microorganisms, consuming leftover waste. Some of the sludge is reintroduced to the colony of microscopic workers to nourish it, and the rest combines with the waste from the sedimentation tanks, is wrung of excess water, mixed with microbes, treated for toxins and processed into the concentrated sludge that used to be taken to the NYOFCO processing plant and made into fertilizer, now trucked to WeCare composting sites. In a third tank, fast-working chlorine kills any bacteria that remain in the water. And, seven hours after entering the plant, clear water pours back into the East River.
As I sit in Baretto Point Park, I know that a colony of microorganisms is hard at work digesting the city’s waste a few blocks away. The tank’s surface bubbles and churns, oxygen forced into water to feed the foamy gray colony of microscopic creatures floating on its surface. Anaerobic bacteria, nematodes, rotifers, and ciliate protozoa are eating, swimming; when they reproduce, they split apart. I imagine the tank as a sort of aggregate stomach: microorganisms culled from the city’s waste digest food to keep the system going. I think of feminist theorist Karen Barad, who argues in Meeting the Universe Halfway for a theory of materiality in which objects and bodies do not preexist others, but are co-produced with them. She writes, “matter is produced and productive, generated and generative. Matter is agentive, not a fixed essence or property of things.”
Repurposing human waste to grow healthier plants seems like a well-designed and ethical solution to the problem of wastewater. These systems have shared stakes, although their collective nature often goes unacknowledged: most people don’t consider that the contents of their stomach, along with everyone else’s, are made into fertilizer and shipped to an orange grove in Florida to grow the fruit that appears on a supermarket shelf, but it happens either way. Perhaps we should question why this feels strange in the first place. We are already entangled in the world in which we live, in ways that we cannot control; as Karen Barad argues, we come to exist through others. We think of cities primarily as places where things happen between people, but there’s more under the surface: teeming bacteria, plants, rusting infrastructure, rising tides, runaway livestock, bedrock, fiber optic networks, and nothing human happens without these nonhuman actors. Wastewater infrastructure is an example of this – it produces an ecosystem that muddles the boundaries between the bodies that make it up. It spills outside of the city’s boundaries, and its benefits and harms are experienced collectively as well. A clean ocean is not enjoyed individually, but as a common good; polluted air hurts everyone, not just the polluters.
But in practice, these entanglements play out across an uneven topography of power; although their benefits are shared, a handful of communities disproportionately bear the brunt of the pollution, poor health, and environmental harm. The South Bronx fertilizer plant, built under the justification of responsibly recycling the city’s biosolids, ultimately sickened the residents of Hunts Point. Poor communities are still more likely to bear the brunt of pollution, even when a piece of infrastructure claims an eco-friendly purpose. Until environmental reforms take these power differences as central concerns, wastewater systems will continue to reproduce inequality.