Downtown air is cleaner, agency reports

The air Downtown isn’t just safe to breathe — it’s safer than it’s been in years.

“I’m happy to report I have nothing but good news,” said Tom Kunkel, director of environmental compliance for the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center. “2008 was an excellent year.”

Downtown saw lower concentrations of particulate matter in the air in 2008 than the year before. August was an especially good month, with one of the lowest particulate matter concentrations in the last three years. Particulate matter refers to solid or liquid particles suspended in the air, like dust, and often comes from manmade sources, like burning diesel fuel.

Lower Manhattan is seeing construction increase every year, but in 2008, more construction companies used ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, which is less harmful to the environment. Of the thousands of air samples collected, none exceeded federal air-quality standards, Kunkel said.

The L.M.C.C.C.’s air monitoring program was so successful that Kunkel said he is expanding to also monitor noise — a pronouncement that received a positive response at Community Board 1’s World Trade Center Committee, where noise is one of the residents’ top concerns.

Kunkel is working on determining background noise levels around the World Trade Center and other major construction projects so he can compare the background noise with the noise the projects cause. He plans to spot-check any projects where people complain about the noise.

Pat Moore, who lives across the street from the W.T.C. site, was glad to hear Kunkel was collecting data to back up her uncomfortable experience with the noisy construction. But she was uncertain how much good the data would do since the Port Authority, which owns the site, does not answer to the Construction Command Center.

The L.M.C.C.C., a state-city subsidiary of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., maintains four air monitors around Lower Manhattan and also examines data from the 12 monitors on 130 Liberty St., a contaminated tower that is being cleaned and demolished. When 130 Liberty St. comes down, perhaps by the end of next summer, the neighborhood will lose those 12 monitors.

“But there will also be one less source [of contamination],” said Bob Harvey, executive director of the L.M.C.C.C.

Fiterman Hall, another contaminated building that will be demolished next year, also has 12 air monitors. The agency will not replace the fixed monitors that are lost, but instead will increase its mobile monitoring program.

The city is also starting a separate air-monitoring program over the next couple months that will add 150 monitors around the city. Mounted on lampposts, the monitors will help the city study how sources of pollution affect air quality. Three monitors will go in Lower Manhattan: one on Broadway below Chambers St., one east of Broadway and one on Canal St. near the Manhattan Bridge.

— Julie Shapiro