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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Bronx Paper Plant

Air Date: Week of

If all goes as planned, New Yorkers will soon witness the construction of the largest factory to be built in the city since World War Two. As John Kalish reports, the developer of the proposed paper recycling plant in the South Bronx isn't a conglomerate or investment firm, but one of the nation's leading environmental advocacy groups.


CURWOOD: If all goes as planned, New Yorkers will soon witness the construction of the largest factory to be built in the city since the Second World War. Ironically, the developer of a paper recycling plant in the South Bronx isn't some conglomerate or investment firm, but one of the nation's leading environmental advocacy groups. Jon Kalish explains.

KALISH: The proposed Bronx Community Paper Company is being heralded as a major experiment in environmental advocacy. It marks the first time a national environmental group is acting as a developer and building its own recycling plant. The Natural Resources Defense Council is the group, and at an art exhibit showcasing architectural plans for the plant, Senior Scientist Alan Hershkowitz explains the move.

(Ambient conversation)

HERSHKOWITZ: We were just getting our butts kicked on trying to advance recycling legislation. So, at some point you've got to step up and say it's not going the way we want it to go. Maybe it's not going the way we want it to go because there's a good reason, so let's find out first-hand. Instead of saying you're not doing it, let's figure out why it's not being done and try to make it happen ourselves.

KALISH: A portion of the old Harlem River Rail Yard will serve as the site of the paper plant. That will mean 26 abandoned and polluted acres of the Bronx will get cleaned up in the process. The plant will also utilize water from a nearby sewage treatment plant. But Hershkowitz says the most important environmental benefit will result in saving trees. The Bronx Paper Company, he says, will harvest an urban forest; some 280,000 metric tons of wastepaper a year will be recycled to produce 220,000 metric tons of newsprint, about an eighth of New York City's annual demand.

HERSHKOWITZ: We're going to be producing less CO2 than virgin mills. We're going to be producing less sulfur dioxides than virgin mills, less nitrogen oxides, less particles. We're going to save 3.4 million trees a year. We're going to save 10,000 acres of forest a year. We're going to reclaim sewage water instead of use fresh water. I mean, on every environmental attribute, we're doing it better than virgin mills. And that's what we want to say: “Get these mills out of the forests, stop harvesting our subsidized virgin resources.”

KALISH: The Bronx paper plant was designed by Maya Lin, best known for her work on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. This is the first industrial undertaking by Lin, who traveled to Sweden and France to study European state of the art recycling and paper production technology. In a recent review, the New York Times called Lin's design “visually spare” and “conceptually rich.” She describes her blueprint as eco-friendly.

LIN: It's actually a series of very clean-line industrial metal buildings connected by glass passageways and skylights, and then a prominent feature will be a glass-encased smoke tower. Again, with the steam sort of misting up through it. But a lot of it is allowing the beauty of sort of the technological components to shine through. It's exposing a machine, in a way.

KALISH: For example, workers will be able to watch their finished product being wrapped for shipment from the plant cafeteria. Bronx residents will also be encouraged to visit the plant and make use of vantage points designed for observing the recycling process. Once the plant is up and running, members of the community who may be concerned about emissions from the paper factory can use computer terminals at a local library to monitor the air. One Bronx resident who will likely be keeping a close eye on the plant is Francis Sturim. She's with the Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which opposes the plant. Sturam has accused the Natural Resources Defense Council of withholding information about the plant's technology from critics.

STURIM: I guess they're fearful that we will find out that it really isn't safe for the health of the community. And in a community that has the highest asthma rate in the country, has approximately 100 toxic release inventory facilities, an incinerator that was just shut down, a sludge pilotization plant that's causing nosebleeds in the community, there's just no reason why we shouldn't have the respect. At least see that, and at least being given the, you know, the information.

KALISH: But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Alan Hershkowitz points out that information about the plant's technology is in the project's Environmental Impact statement. And that his group met 5 times with the Coalition. The Council went so far as to take a co-chair of the Coalition to Sweden to observe the technology there. Hershkowitz says every effort was made to listen to public concerns about the environmental effects of the project.

HERSHKOWITZ: You're required by law in New York City to have one public hearing to have a permit. We had 122. The siting of this thing was done in an unprecedented way. Every aspect of this project has been reviewed and continues to be reviewed. This exhibit is an effort to broaden the dialogue, to open us up and say look at us, tell us what we're doing wrong, tell us what we're doing right.

KALISH: The Natural Resources Defense Council has spent 2 and a half million dollars on the paper plant so far. Total cost is projected to be nearly $400 million, with financing to come from state bonds and corporate investors. The plan is to turn the plant over to a for-profit company. Groundbreaking is slated for this spring. Meanwhile, the NRDC's Hershkowitz says he's talked with the mayor of Pittsburgh about launching a similar project in that city, and he says he's been asked to discuss the idea with officials from 7 other major cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago. For Living on Earth, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.



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