Streams

Sailing Round Manhattan on the Sludge Boat

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Eight million New Yorkers generate a whole lot of sewage, and on any given day some of that sewage - more than two million gallons - is being shipped around on the city's waterways. WNYC's Arun Venugopal was treated to a ride on the city's fancy new sludge boat, dubbed the Red Hook.

REPORTER: When the city invited a select few reporters aboard the Sludge Boat Red Hook, we figured it would reek, naturally enough. But, despite all that human waste and other organic cargo sloshing about, the boat smells just fine.

This is a nice, clean, next-generation sludge vessel: 350 feet long, cruising speed 10 knots. Inside the cabin, it's all fancy gadgets, everywhere.

MATE: This is like the Enterprise on Star Trek.

REPORTER: That's the ship's mate, Mark Thomas. He's a fairly easygoing guy who clearly pines for the simpler, old-fashioned sludge boats of yore. But those old boats are a lot smaller than this one. The Red Hook can load up with a good 1.2 million gallons of sludge. Today it's pulled up next to a city wastewater treatment plant on the west side of Manhattan, at 135th street.

Ultimately the waste is going to be turned into fertilizer. And the first step in that process is removing the water from the waste. While some treatment plants can do that, this one can't. So the sludge boat is taking the waste to a de-watering plant in the Bronx.

CAPTAIN SEAN RIEL: The cargo is not necessarily the most prestigious, shall we say.

REPORTER: Captain Sean Riel.

RIEL: But it's pretty safe. It's not really going to explode. It's not going to make you sick. You won't get cancer from it.

REPORTER: The basic function of sludge boats changed in the 1980s. That's when Congress banned local governments from dumping their sewage out in the ocean. And as we travel down the Hudson, Captain Riel says those laws have had a big impact on our local wildlife.

RIEL: When I first started here, you had seagulls, and that was it. Now you have cormorants and egrets, and geese on the Hudson and East rivers. I've seen seals in the harbor. And they're big.

REPORTER: We eventually make our way around the bottom tip of Manhattan, and up the East River. The ride ends on the Bronx waterfront, where the boat transfers its sludgy cargo to a Hunts Point de-watering plant. By this point the sludge is a thick, gooey mass of sorts. The city pays a private company 32 million dollars to take the sludge off its hands and convert it into fertilizer.

That happens at a facility operated by the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, or NYOFCO. And this is the part that's more contentious.

FIELDS: The smell from NYOFCO is just horrendous.

Tanya Fields is an environmental activist, and member of Mothers on the Move, a Bronx community group. She's also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against NYOFCO, its parent company, the Carlyle Group and the city's Department of Environmental Protection.

FIELDS: It is a smell that community members have described as smelling like burning bodies, or like sulfur, or often times, like what it is: human feces.

REPORTER: The plaintiffs contend that the smell is so bad that they can't open their windows, or hang their laundry outside. And that they regularly suffer headaches, breathing problems and nausea. Two months ago, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo joined in their lawsuit. Which asks for NYOFCO to eliminate the odor from its fertilizer pellet facility, and for the city to do the same at its nearby Hunts Point sewage plant.

FIELDS: There are other companies in this country that do the same thing, who use a similar process to treat waste. And they don't have these same issues. So it is quite possible and quite reasonable.

REPORTER: When asked to comment on the lawsuit, the city deferred to NYOFCO. The company says it is in compliance with all environmental laws, and works to be a good neighbor.

A lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council, who represents the plaintiffs, says the two sides are currently in settlement talks. And that the plaintiffs won't agree to any settlement that doesn't eliminate the smell. For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.

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