Ferries belch diesel near kids’ playground

By Jane Flanagan

August is a popular month at Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City, where the breeze off the water and the playground sprinklers are a welcome relief from the heat. But this year some families are staying away. Others come reluctantly. The reason: the nearby ferry terminal.

“I don’t like it,” said Robin Parker, a Tribeca resident. “I see big clouds of black smoke. I know it can’t be good.”

Since they first spotted the ferry terminal floating up the Hudson to land near Rockefeller Park this past spring, many parents have expressed concerns over the boats’ diesel emissions. The terminal is temporary, to operate for two years while a permanent $45 million slip is constructed for the Mercantile Exchange spot. The new slip is being built off-site.

Parents’ concerns over diesel emissions are not unfounded.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report stating that diesel exhaust is likely carcinogenic, according to Elizabeth Zimmermann, an E.P.A. spokesperson. The 600-plus-page report also examines the impact of diesel exhaust on respiratory ailments, she said. (The report entitled, “Health Assessment Document for Diesel Engine Exhaust,” is on the E.P.A.’s Web site, www.epa.gov.)

Officials from the Port Authority, the agency responsible for the terminal, said they are aware of the residents’ complaints.

“We hear their concerns,” said Dan Maynard, a Port Authority spokesperson. To help alleviate the concerns, air monitoring equipment will be installed at the playground and park next month, he said. Maynard added, however, that he is confident the ferry emissions do not travel to the park or playground and believes the air monitoring will bear that out.

“They are released at the dock and don’t travel,” he said.

The air monitoring was requested by the Battery Park City Authority, at the urging of residents. It was originally scheduled to begin this month, but Maynard said logistics still needed to be worked out. Before being put in place, it also needs to be reviewed by Community Board 1, he said.

Magdalena Hasiec, a Battery Park City resident, disagrees about the exhaust not traveling. “You can smell it at the playground and feel it on your skin,” she said. “Sometimes the whole playground becomes gray,” she said.

Several months ago, Hasiec collected 300 signatures for a petition protesting the terminal.

To alleviate environmental concerns over the emissions at ferry slips, several years ago, the Port Authority did an environmental assessment report. But the report did not analyze the temporary terminal at Rockefeller Park.

“We were not asked to analyze that,” said Howard Ellis, the scientist who did the air study. Ellis said that when the study was done three years ago, the interim terminal’s location was not yet decided, therefore, it was not included in the report. Ellis is president of Enviroplan Consulting, a New Jersey-based company that monitors air emissions and pollution.

Ellis was a subcontractor working for Lawler, Matusky & Skelly Engineers, a Rockland County-based firm. L.M.S. will also be doing the air monitoring.

Maynard, however, offers a different explanation about why the temporary terminal was not analyzed. He said the Port Authority and its consultants determined that Rockefeller Park was not in the zone impacted by ferry emissions, something the air testing will confirm, he said.

The issue of air quality on the waterfront is a difficult one. Unlike most other sources that emit fuel exhaust — either stationary or moving — marine engines do not yet have government oversight.

“This is an industry that has never been regulated,” said Russell Long, executive director of Bluewater Network, a national environmental group, based in San Francisco. Bluewater Network recently issued a report monitoring ferry emissions in New York Harbor.

“When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, marine engines were left off the hook,” said Long.

Representatives of Bluewater Network recently held a press conference on the steps of City Hall to announce their findings on ferry pollution. The report, “Air Pollution From Passenger Ferries In New York Harbor,” is located on its Web site, www.bluewaternetwork.org. The report states that ferries must become 95 percent cleaner in order to match the emission reductions achieved by cars and trucks.

With the E.P.A.’s recent report, diesel emissions have increasingly become a topic for politicians. Governor George Pataki announced that contractors at the World Trade Center site will be asked to use ultra-low sulfur fuel. New York City buses now also use the lower-emission fuel.

Federal clean air guidelines for marine engines are in the offing. They will begin in 2004, according to Zimmerman of the E.P.A., becoming mandatory in 2007. The regulations, however, will apply only to new boats. Older boats would be permitted to operate for the length of an engine’s life, roughly 15 to 20 years.

But environmentalists point out that low sulfur fuels are available now.

“You can jumpstart this whole process by cleaning up ferry fuels,” said Bluewater Network’s Long. “That would have an immediate and dramatic impact.”

Long proposes using the low sulfur fuel proposed for the W.T.C. reconstruction and now in use by city busses. He said the largest ferry operator in San Francisco is already using ultra-low sulfur fuel.

Officials at New York Waterway, which operates the boats at the interim terminal, said they are already working with the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority on ways to reduce ferry diesel pollutants. According to Tom Collins, a NYSERDA spokesman, the $6 million effort will examine the viability of alternative fuels and ways to retrofit ferry engines with filters. Other alternatives will also be explored, he said. Collins said that $1 million will be spent on selecting the technology and $5 million on incentives to ferry operators, to offset the expense involved.

But in the meantime, the location of the terminal by Rockefeller Park remains a concern for parents and environmentalists.

“That’s a direct exposure for the kids,” said Teri Shore, director of Bluewater’s Clean Vessels Campaign. Children and the elderly are the most susceptible to diesel pollutants, she said, making a ferry terminal near the playground particularly problematic.

“Needlessly exposing kids to diesel exhaust for the convenience of ferry commuters seems like a huge risk,” she said.

Some parents, however, are at least comforted by the fact that the terminal is temporary.

“I’d like to see it moved down,” said Angela Benfield, a Battery Park City resident. “I’m not crazy about the kids being near the fumes. But I’m glad it’s temporary.”

“I see the fumes, it disturbs me, but I’ve accepted it,” said parent Lauren Blackford.

New York Waterway officials say they are sympathetic to residents’ concerns and want to be a good neighbor. In addition to studying fuel alternatives and the possibility of installing exhaust filters, the company is currently repowering its fleet to equip the boats with cleaner diesel engines. The fleet is at least 75 percent repowered, according to Waterway officials. In the meantime, New York Waterway is making every effort to dock only its boats with cleaner engines at the terminal near Rockefeller terminal, they said. The temporary terminal is also 65 feet out into the water.

In deciding to place the temporary terminal near the park, officials from the Port Authority and the Battery Park City Authority said that it was the only viable solution. North Cove was too congested with marine traffic already and the terminal needed to be in relative proximity to the World Financial Center.