Environmental Justice Case Study:

North River Sewage Treatment Plant

New York, New York

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West Harlem is a predominantly minority and low-income neighborhood located on the northern section of Manhattan in New York City. In 1985, the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, originally planned for construction in a predominantly white and upper-middle class neighborhood, was constructed in West Harlem. The Plant stretches eight blocks along the Hudson River from 137th street to 145th street.

Ever since its construction, members of the community have complained about overbearing odors emanating from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. The plant processes over 170 million gallons of raw sewage a day. Due to the noxious odors, most often described as resembling the smell of rotten eggs, residents complain about not being able to go out on their terraces or open up their windows. The odor becomes even more potent during the hot summer months. The smell sometimes reaches as far down as 120th street and all the way up to 157th street -almost a two-mile distance.

In addition to the offensive smell, after the opening of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, many residents complained of itchy eyes, shortness of breath, and other symptoms often related to asthma and other respiratory ailments.

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In 1962, city planners originally designated 72nd Street along the Hudson River as the location for the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. Due to technical problems and community resistance, the site was later rejected. The City Planning Commission decided not to pursue other possible sites in the area and instead relocated site plans up to 137th street in West Harlem.

The City Planning Commission did not seek input from the community and the City made it apparent that the local community boards would not have much influence on the location of the sewage plant. In 1985, West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), an environmental justice community group, registered objections to the plant and initiated a court case to prevent the building of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. The community's concerns did not prevent the construction of the sewage plant in their neighborhood.

As a concession to the community, the City promised a 28-acre state park to be built on top of the sewage plant. The park was planned in 1970, but was not completed until 1993, seven years after the sewage plant opened. The $129 million park, officially known as Riverbank State Park, was the first of its kind in the United States. It was the fist park to be built on top of a sewage plant, as well as the first State Park to be built in Manhattan (the fifth for New York City).

The community has continued to submit reports of overbearing fumes seeping from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. In 1991, after six years of plant operation and community unrest, the city finally acknowledged a problem with odor. City engineers discovered that the problems with bad smells were due to a design flaw with the roof. Bad air was collecting in the roof and large gusts of wind off the Hudson River were blowing the fumes through the support arches of the structure and out into the air. City officials promised to devote $50 to $100 million to remedy the problem.

However, in 1993, near completion of the $53 million improvements, Ruth Messinger, then Borough president of Manhattan, released a report stating that the improvements would only eradicate 75% of the odor problems. To eliminate all odor from the sewage plant, for which construction cost over $1 billion, would cost another $100 million, an investment the city was not willing to make.

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Key Actors

West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT)

WE ACT is a local community group involved in insuring environmental safety and justice for the community of West Harlem. They have been active objectors to the creation of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant.

Community Board 9

Community Board 9 is the local community board for the neighborhood around the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. They have also been involved in regulating and monitoring community complaints and concerns relating to the sewage plant.

West Harlem Community Organization

Involved in monitoring the activities of the City in regard to the North Hudson Water Pollution Plant. Project Director: Lawrence King .

New York City Department of Environmental Protection

The Bureau of Water Protection Control the DEP replaced Community Board 9 as the main contact for complaints. The DEP now has a hotline for people to call in complaints about the North River Sewage Treatment Plant.

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The New York community where the factory was sited is mostly made up of poor and minority residents, as the following table indicates:

1990 US Census Data




Asian & Pacific Islander

Average Household Income

Persons Below Poverty Line

Associate/Bachelor's Degree

Graduate or Professional Degree

Proposed Site (72nd ST.)









Actual Site (145th ST.)









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The first problem with the North River Waste Management Plant was its location and the fact that the plant was moved from its planned location in a predominantly white and affluent neighborhood to a predominantly African-American lower-income neighborhood. Community organizations filed lawsuits protesting the construction of the plant. The most effective method for catching the attention of the public was a traffic-stopping protest held on the West Side Highway.

Problems with odor developed once the North River Sewage Treatment Plant opened. The community board, Community Board 9, and WE ACT (West Harlem Environmental Action) became active lobbyists for control of the plant. These groups continued to put pressure on the administration and in 1991 an investigation was finally conducted. The problem of smell was addressed and an investigation and money was allocated to address the problems found.

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The problems with smell have mostly been resolved at the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. There are monitors to check the levels of hydrogen-sulfide, which is what causes the rotten-egg smell. A hotline was put into place by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to handle complaints from community members in regards to the smells generated by the sewage plant. For now, the problem has been solved by strictly monitoring the plant. Problems related to asthma and the North River plant still need to be addressed.

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In the future, city planners should work with the local Community Boards and other community organizations when planning the construction of such a major plant. As far as North River Sewage Treatment Plant, there should continue to be constant surveillance of the plant. The communities concerns should be addressed and the issue of asthma researched.

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References and Key Contacts



Bunch, William. "$52 Million Won't Flush Stink." New York Newsday, June 30, 1994.

Chittum, Samme. "From Sludge to Roses; Park on Sewage Plant Set for '93." New York Newsday, August 14, 1992.

Gladwell, Malcolm. "Letter From the Park; Play Area Hailed at First Flush Now Appears Ripe for Criticism." Washington Post, May 28, 1993.

Gray, Cristopher. "Streetscapes: Upper Riverside Drive; When New Sidewalk Become a Path to Controversy." New York Times, May 30, 1993

Holloway, Lynette. "28 Acres of Roff and a Place to Play in Harlem." New York Times, September 1, 1992.

Mandell, Jonathan. "A state Park in Harlem; Nature in a Surreal Setting; A sewage plant by any other name still stinks." New York Newsday, May 27, 1993.


Amoruso, Carol. "WE ACT for Environmental Justice." Third Force. December 31, 1997: p.19-23.

Ashfield, Benjamin. "Something Smells Like Environmental Racism." Modern Times. December 8, 1993.


Community Board 9
565 West 125 Street
New York, New York 10027
(212) 864-6200

West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT)
(212) 961-1000

Riverbank State Park
General information:
(212) 694-3600

Department of Environmental Protection
Customer Service Center
59-17 Junction Boulevard, 10th Floor
Corona, NY 11368
To file a complaint: (718) DEP - HELP (337 - 4357)

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Sewage Treatment Plant-Also called water pollution control plants and wastewater treatment plants, these facilities remove most pollutants from used water before it is discharged into local waterways.

Community Board-There are 59 community boards in New York City. They act as advisors to the Borough President and as a liaison between the community and city agencies. They do not have the power to create laws.

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