Pulse: The Scene: Cruz Control

A creative solution to our energy woes could be brewing in North Philly — if only a state rep would let it

State Representative Angel Cruz lives in a well-kept baby blue rowhouse near Tioga and Venango, next door to a check-cashing outlet. Across the street is a cavernous, padlocked parking lot. One block away, inside a former gasket factory, Nadia Adawi, 47, has built a demonstration plant. She says it will turn kitchen grease into biodiesel, a biodegradable, clean-burning fuel that works in any diesel engine.

Cruz wants her out.

President Bush likes biodiesel because it can be made from vegetable oil or soybeans, reducing our dependency on foreign petroleum. Governor Rendell likes it, too, and last year the state awarded more than $369,000 in grants to Adawi’s company, Philadelphia Fry-O-Diesel. Biodiesel is a growth market: By year’s end, U.S. consumption will have grown 100-fold since 1999. Fry-O-Diesel wants to be the first company in the world to make biodiesel from trap grease, the nasty slime that collects beneath restaurant sinks and clogs up sewer lines. If it succeeds, its model could wind up being adopted as a way to make something very valuable — energy—out of worthless, festering goop.

Adawi’s efforts have drawn interest from as far away as Sweden and Israel, but closer to home, the reception has been less friendly. Cruz’s constituents, he says, are worried the place might explode and take the neighborhood with it.
Adawi says that’s impossible. She’s installed a sprinkler system and sparkless
“explosion-proof” machinery and light fixtures. Her precautions were enough for the fire department to give Fry-O-Diesel a permit to store 250 gallons of methanol. Cruz says Fry-O-Diesel could release toxic emissions and foul odors. The city’s Air Management Services disagrees. After checking that the plant keeps all its vapors enclosed, it gave Fry-O-Diesel a permit as well.

Of course, what might really irk Cruz about Fry-O-Diesel is that he didn’t hear about it sooner. He first learned of the company’s plans when he received an invitation from Adawi to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in late September, scheduled for the following week. He was furious.

“I don’t give a shit what permits you have,” he said. “If you’re going to come here and set up a business, you need to have the respect to tell the residents what you’re doing.”

And if you don’t, Cruz will. He printed up “Community Alert” fliers inviting neighbors to a meeting that Friday night and distributed them door-to-door. About 30 of his constituents showed up. So did Adawi and an aide from Fry-O-Diesel. Adawi won’t discuss what happened, but by the time she left, Cruz says, she was in tears.

“They made this lady cry. They tore her apart, destroyed her,” he says, with audible pride.

On Monday, Cruz called state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty, the source of Fry-O-Diesel’s grant, who was one of the more than 100 politicians and dignitaries Adawi had invited to the ribbon-cutting. “If you come up here, you’re going to get embarrassed,” warned Cruz, who is also the Democratic leader of the Seventh Ward. That day, Adawi cancelled the ribbon-cutting.

Cruz has never seen the inside of Fry-O-Diesel’s plant, but from talking to him, you’d think the company was building an oil refinery. Hardly. The chemical process of turning grease into biodiesel is safe enough for environmentalists to blog about doing it in their bathtubs and garages, with none of Fry-O-Diesel’s built-in safeguards.

Fry-O-Diesel is currently putting the finishing touches on the plant and trying to negotiate with Cruz and the neighbors. Even if Cruz relents, the company hopes to leave B and Venango for a larger, commercial-scale facility within a year. That isn’t soon enough for Cruz or the half-dozen residents of Ella Street we spoke with, who voiced a unanimous hope that Fry-O-Diesel would pack up and leave.
“I didn’t go to the meeting, and I don’t know too much about what they’re doing, but I don’t like the idea of something so close to us,” says Joanne Storti, who lives in the neighborhood. “I’m against it.”