UWS Has Most Polluted Air in the City, Study Shows

By Emily Frost on November 20, 2013 8:20am 

 This diagram shows the work that's been done to convert to clean fuel in the neighborhood since 2011. 
This diagram shows the work that's been done to convert to clean fuel in the neighborhood since 2011. 
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NYC Clean Heat

UPPER WEST SIDE — While New York City's air is cleaner than it has been in 50 years, the Upper West Side is still the dirtiest neighborhood citywide when it comes to air pollution, city data shows.

Burning heavy heating oils spews high levels of particulate matter — including sulfur, nickel and other impurities — into the air in the form of soot and causes far greater levels of air pollution than cars or trucks, according to NYC Clean Heat, the organization established to help New York achieve the cleanest air of any large U.S. city. 

The neighborhood's density and the number of large buildings contribute to the problem, said Kenneth Camilleri, an operations manager for NYC Clean Heat.

"The reason why [the Upper West Side] is the biggest emitter is the size of the buildings," he said. 

The Upper East Side and Midtown are also not far behind the Upper West Side in their levels of emissions, he said. 

In 2011, about 700 buildings in the neighborhood — out of about 10,000 citywide — were identified by the city Department of Buildings as burning heavy heating oils No. 4 and No. 6, which are known for the high levels of toxins they emit. 

Two years later, about 160 buildings have converted to what the city considers cleaner fuels, including natural gas, a low-sulfur heating oil and geothermal power.

The remaining neighborhood buildings that have not converted are emitting 54 tons of particulate matter (PM) into the air each year, according to city data.

Just one pound of PM 2.5, named for the particle's small size of 2.5 micrometers or less, can saturate a volume of air larger than the Empire State Building, according to NYC Clean Heat. 

As of last year, the biggest emitter, No. 6 oil, was no longer allowed by the city, and permits for burning it, which run on a three-year cycle, will not be renewed or granted by 2015 in an effort to phase it out.

However, Camilleri said, "there are a lot of property management agencies that aren't up to speed...They’re thinking 'Why spend your money now when you don’t have to.'" 

His organization is hoping to enlist the help of the local community board to teach building owners and property managers that the phasing out of No. 6 and No. 4 oils has made No. 2 oil, a cleaner, lower-sulfur oil, a more cost-effective choice.

Klari Neuwalt, the chairwoman for Community Board 7's Parks and Environment Committee, said the misconception about the expense of No. 2 oil is widespread. 

"We’ve consistently heard that No. 2 is going to cost more per gallon," she said. 

In addition, dirtier fuels cause build-up that makes them less efficient because more oil needs to be burned to pass through the soot that accumulates, Camilleri explained.

"The amount of money that is wasted by burning No. 6 is something that is not known," he told CB7 members on Monday night. 

The city is using the economic argument to woo property owners and managers to make the switch, and they're trying to incentivize it by listing online the property managers who have switched 50, 75 and 100 percent of their portfolios to cleaner heat sources.

According to a map the city maintains tracking conversions, the Morningside Heights community around Columbia University is responsible for dozens of switches to cleaner fuels — in part because the trustees of Columbia University have converted 75 percent to cleaner fuels. 

"Tenant-owned buildings contribute to 55 percent of the emissions on the Upper West Side," Camilleri said, citing city data and adding that educating people on heating oil's effects on air quality should be a community goal.

Reaching the biggest buildings first is the organization's goal, because "that’s where we can see the most impact," he said. 

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