Downtown pollution not just from construction


BY Aline Reynolds

Environmentalists at the

Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center and elsewhere have made strides towards lessening airborne soot coming from the plethora of neighborhood construction projects.

But, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, there is an equally damaging form of air pollution that has somewhat flown under the radar: black smoke billowing from buildings that use dirty diesel to heat their interiors.

The E.D.F. studies revealed 130 residential, commercial and institutional buildings in Lower Manhattan below Houston Street burn the dirtiest grades of heating oil. Buildings such as these make up only one percent of the city’s building stock, yet they contribute 86 percent of the city’s heating oil soot pollution; more soot than the aggregate amount the city’s cars and trucks produce. Largely because of its soot problem, New York has fallen short of national air quality standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for many years in a row, dating back to the early 1990s.

“You can hardly call it heating oil, because it’s just sludge,” said E.D.F. staff attorney Isabelle Silverman. “It’s literally the bottom of the barrel, what’s left over after the refining process. That’s why you see black smoke coming out of the buildings.”

The health effects of inhaling soot particles are wide-ranging and potentially lethal. “They can kill people,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for the American Lung Association’s National Policy and Advocacy. “They can cause a range of respiratory problems, as well heart attacks and strokes. Nolen said that children and seniors are particularly at risk.

The E.D.F. testified at a City Council hearing last Wednesday, where Silverman requested that some of the $200 million of an available grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation be directed to Downtown buildings that are switching from dirty heating oil to cleaner oil or natural gas.

“The purpose of the fund would be to give buildings an incentive to switch to cleaner heating fuels fairly quickly, within the next three to four years,” Silverman said.

Conversion expenses vary according to the type of fuel and whether boilers, burners or oil tanks need to be replaced to burn cleaner fuel. Typically, though, these fixes amount to an average of $120,000 per building, which translates into $15.6 million in grant money needed to address the problem.

Buildings that transition to natural gas would cut their expenses while improving the city’s air quality.

“Natural gas is cheaper than oil and is predicted to stay cheaper than oil,” Silverman said. “Buildings will be able to reduce their operating costs if they can switch to natural gas.”

Although dirty oil costs less up front than clean oil, it is pricier in the long run, since it gums up boilers, which then require constant maintenance. 

In July, the City Council passed an environmental bill requiring a reduction in the sulfur levels of moderately dirty oil, but Silverman said that’s not enough to have a notable impact on pollution levels.

“Eventually [moderately dirty] oil will have to go as well, because there is still 50 percent sludge in there.”

Silverman presented the Lower Manhattan data to Community Board 1’s Battery Park City Committee meeting last February. C.B. 1 subsequently passed a resolution in support of a city rule mandating a phase-out of dirty heating oil by 2020.

Lower Manhattan resident Paul Proulx also testified at the City Council hearing about his 76-unit co-op building one block east of the World Trade Center.

“A lot of the buildings that are going to be forced to upgrade their boilers and their heating systems are going to be in a real bind,” including his building, Proulx said at the hearing. Residents have already invested in a $3 million heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, which translated into a $30,000 assessment per shareholder.

“Needless to say, some of my neighbors couldn’t afford the assessment… so they’ve had to move or will have to move soon,” he said.

Proulx said the proposed grant is “a win-win for Con Edison and our community,” adding that his co-op might not otherwise make the switch to a natural gas burning unit when the building replaces its boiler.

“A grant like this one is the kind of thing that could allow any building to make the improvements that are necessary, while limiting the displacement that comes with major assessments,” he said.

Alternatively, Proulx proposed that a chunk of the L.M.D.C. money be parceled out for loans to Downtown buildings to purchase new boilers and other heat–related expenses. In this scenario, “Buildings would pay back the funds using the savings that they would get from burning the cheaper fuel,” he said.

The board of managers at 380 Rector Place, the 25-story condominium residence in Battery Park City, is also thinking about converting from dirty oil to natural gas.

“Cleaner and more efficient heating in the building is clearly something everybody would like to have,” said board member Anthony Notaro, who also supports the E.D.F.’s grant request. According to the E.D.F, Notaro’s residence is one of at least six apartment buildings in the neighborhood that use the dirty oil.

“We’re interested in doing it, but it’s a matter of being able to afford it,” Notaro said.