February 3, 2011
Just the other day, while out for a walk on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I noticed thick black smoke hanging over Columbus Avenue, while particles of soot rained down on the sidewalk. The wind carried the smoke eastward, over a nearby schoolyard and into Central Park, where it began to dissipate.
It took me a few minutes to find the source – the chimney of a large, nearby apartment building. I snapped photos of the oily stuff as it poured into the sky, and wondered if it was even legal to pollute in such a blatant way. The smoke came from burning dirty heating oil – and, yes, it's legal. But that will soon be changing, thanks in part to EDF, which has led the fight to regulate heating oil and is helping the city promote an "early adopter" campaign to encourage building owners to convert to cleaner fuel.
Mary Barber, EDF's Campaign Director for the New York region, is coordinating a campaign to rid the city of dirty heating oil. In her office, she showed me jars containing Nos. 6, 4, and 2 oil. The No. 2 oil was a light, golden liquid tinged with red. By contrast, No. 6 was a viscous, unrefined black sludge.
In New York, some 10,000 buildings — many in the city's wealthiest neighborhoods — burn No. 6 and No.4 heating oil, the dirtiest and cheapest available. This oil causes more soot pollution than all of the city's cars and trucks combined. And particulate pollution — made of tiny particles — is toxic. Particles lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and increase the risk of cancer. For example, in New York City, asthma hospitalization rates among children under 14 are double the national average. EDF exposed this hazard in a groundbreaking report, The Bottom of the Barrel: How the Dirtiest Heating Oil Pollutes Our Air and Harms Our Health.
"It is an outrage that so much dirty fuel is burned in the heart of our most crowded neighborhoods – we simply cannot move fast enough to get rid of it," said EDF's New York region director Andy Darrell, a member of New York Mayor Bloomberg's Sustainability Advisory Board.
On January 28, 2011 the Bloomberg administration took a stand on this issue by proposing a game-changing rule requiring the phase-out of the dirtiest grade of heating oil by 2015, and for all buildings to convert to cleaner fuel when they replace their boiler or burner. The rule also mandates that all buildings convert to cleaner fuels by 2030.
The new rule, coupled with other legislation, is expected to reduce heating oil soot pollution by 40% by 2015 and by 65% by 2030.
EDF and a broad coalition of allies successfully pushed for the new rule all year and convinced regulators to advance the phaseout deadline from 2040 to 2015. "This is a huge step to rid the city of the plumes of smoke that choke our children’s lungs," said Darrell, "By switching to cleaner fuels, New York City will prove that a mega-city can grow and clean the air at the same time."
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas prices are predicted to stay lower than oil prices for the next 25 years. For that reason, EDF is urging buildings to make the change even faster than the rule requires. "Buildings can take advantage of low natural gas prices and improved energy efficiency to cut their operating costs far into the future," explains EDF attorney Isabelle Silverman. "Why keep wasting money and fouling the air?"
The impact of the phase-out on illnesses from asthma to heart disease could be "second only to our achievements in reducing the city's smoking rates," predicts Thomas Farley, the city's health commissioner.
"For those at risk of acute asthma and heart disease, this new rule is a new lease on life," adds Jason Schwartz of the Institute for Policy Integrity.
The city's goal is to have every heating system converted by 2030. That means a generation of children will still grow up breathing too much soot. Why the wait? Barber explains that the switch from No. 6 and 4 oil is more complicated than it seems. "Everyone wants to do it — at first,” she says. "Then they start to learn about what's involved."
Each building must hire an engineer to assess the system in place, and come up with solutions that can range from replacing old oil tanks to running gas lines from the street to the building or installing a dual fuel burner (so that clean natural gas can be alternated with high grade oil.) Masonry chimneys may need a liner. In other words, converting a building's heating system could cost up to $300,000 or more. If you consider how long it takes the average coop board to agree on a color scheme for the lobby, you can understand why such changes will take time.
Still, some of Manhattan's wealthiest neighborhoods and most famous buildings burn the dirtiest oil, so change can't wait. An interactive EDF map shows where the worst offenders are. Among its revelations: The majestic Dakota on Central Park West, where John Lennon lived, burns No. 6 oil. Is it possible that Yoko Ono and her fellow tenants are among the city's worst polluters?
The new rule will be open for public comments with a public hearing on February 28 — and look to powerful interests to weigh in. The EDF team will be in the thick of the negotiations, working to ensure the best possible outcome.
For far too long, soot has been the most ubiquitous sign of a New York City winter. You open the window of your overheated apartment and the sill is soon dusted with soot. A white blanket of new-fallen snow is quickly covered in black speckles. Black smudges appear on your handkerchief when you blow your nose.
All those delights come to us from the burning of dirty No. 4 and No. 6 heating oil. It's time for that to change. To paraphrase the Dakota's most famous resident: All we are saying is give clean a chance.
What You Can Do
New Yorkers united to get cleaner air and you can too. Join EDF's Clear the Air campaign to get involved and protect our right to clean air.