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Buildings Belching Black Smoke on Upper East Side

By Amy Zimmer | December 9, 2010 7:53am | Updated on December 9, 2010 7:58am

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UPPER EAST SIDE — While the Upper East Side has some of the most coveted zip codes in the city, it also has some of the dirtiest air, according to the Health Department.

One of the major culprits: the area's high concentration of buildings burning No. 6 heating oil.

"It has 20 times more soot pollutants than regular oil or natural gas. These buildings emit more pollution than diesel trucks," said Isabelle Silverman, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group that has been encouraging the city to curb No. 6 heating oil.

The soot, or particulate matter, from the dirty oil is associated with triggering asthma attacks, exacerbating respiratory illnesses, increasing the risk of heart disease and even causing premature death, according to EDF.

One Upper East Side resident was so aghast when she saw black smoke billowing from three large luxury buildings that burn No. 6 oil in her neighborhood, she snapped some pictures and fired them off to EDF.

Black plumes belching out of smokestacks is not only bad for the environment, it may actually be illegal. If the sooty stuff is wafting for more than two minutes within an hour, it’s a violation of city air pollution codes, Silverman said.

She forwarded the pictures on to Glenwood Management — which runs the Lucerne at 350 East 79th St., the Pavilion at 500 East 77th St. and the Cambridge at 500 East 85th St., the buildings caught on camera — with an invitation to join its upcoming "mayoral challenge." The challenge, expected to launch with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the spring, will be a voluntary program to get buildings to switch from dirty oil. (The photographer declined to speak to DNAinfo for fear of reprisal.)

New regulations on dirty oil are expected soon. The Department of Environmental Protection is slated to release rules that may require buildings using No. 6 and the slightly less dirty No. 4 heating oil to convert their boilers to a low sulfur No. 4 oil by 2015.

New York City is one of the few places in the country where No. 6 and No. 4 are still used for home heating, according to the DEP. There are roughly 6,000 buildings that use No. 6 and 4,000 buildings that use No. 4 heating oil citywide.

Several residents at the Lucerne were unaware that its building was emitting a potentially toxic brew from burning unrefined sludge.

"I haven’t heard of No. 6 heating oil. I’ve heard of P.S. 6, which is a school in the area," said David Crystal.

"Are we breathing it in? Is it coming into our apartments?" asked his wife, Loren, worried.

"I prefer them to change it if it’s bad for the environment," Crystal added.

Another tenant, Jim Williams, recalled when things were even worse. Williams visited New York in 1968 before moving here in the 1970s. He  said if you wiped your finger across a windowsill then you would see soot.

"Compared to that it’s benign now," Williams said. "But the air is still very bad in New York. There are just so many people and buildings."

But Williams, who recently lost his job in finance, wondered if now was a sound economic time to be focusing on having buildings convert their heating oil.

Glenwood representatives said they addressed the black smoke maintenance issues and hoped to be using natural gas for all three buildings by the end of next year, according to an e-mail they sent Silverman last week. One of the three buildings photographed already has a dual boiler for oil and natural gas. The company, which operates 16 other buildings that use No. 6 heating oil, did not respond to requests  for comment from DNAinfo.

Silverman encouraged New Yorkers to find out if their buildings burn dirty heating oil by checking EDF’s database at www.dirtybuildings.org

"If you are on the dirty building list," she said, "contact your building owner or condo/coop board members demanding that your building switches to much cleaner natural gas or No. 2 heating oil."

The Real Estate Board of New York supported the eventual phase out of No. 6 heating oil, "but given the economic climate, we have to be sensitive to the capacity of buildings for capital investments," said Angela Sung, a REBNY senior vice president.

Rather than converting boilers to another heating oil, which could cost from $5,000 to $200,000, many landlords would rather make the switch to natural gas, which could also cost up to $200,000, but the process is somewhat limited by available ConEd gas lines, she said.

Phasing out dirty oil over a 20 year period would generate $5.3 million worth of health benefits and avoid 600 mortalities, according to a study from the New York University School of Law's Institute for Policy Integrity.

The DEP received roughly 2,200 311 complaints about buildings’ chimney smoke in Fiscal Year 2009 and issued 500 violations. Boilers using the heavy No. 6 or No. 4 are more difficult to maintain than No. 2 oil or natural gas, causing problems with incomplete combustion, officials said.