HARLEM — One day, Columbia University hopes its 17-acre Manhattanville campus expansion site will become the place where scientists unlock the secrets of Alzheimer's.
But for now, the most important scientific protocol taking place at the future site of Jerome L. Greene Science Center, involves keeping dust levels down to prevent adding construction debris to the list of pollutants in an area with higher-than-average rates of asthma.
Each truck rolling out of the construction site and onto the streets of West Harlem, has to stop at a wheel cleaning station where a massive spray of recycled water blasts up from the ground, knocking off excess dust and wet concrete stuck to the wheels and undercarriage.
It's part of Columbia's clean construction program designed to limit the amount of air pollution, dust, noise and even rodent issues facing the surrounding neighborhood.
"Five years ago we got some peculiar looks before bidding this project out," said Ramesh Raman, executive director of environmental field compliance for Manhattanville development, slated to open in 2016. "Now good contractors realize this is the wave of the future."
An Environmental Protection Agency grant was used to retrofit almost every diesel engine used on the site with a particulate filter to prevent the black smoke usually seen spewing from the top of the gigantic trucks. Ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel is required and much of the site has been electrified to prevent the use of machines running on diesel fuel where possible.
The construction fences are 11 feet tall with angled banana tops and noise blankets to baffle the racket that emanates from construction sites.
A mesh cover is used to smother the dust that could leak from every load of dirt or rubble that leaves the site, while more than 90 percent of the wood, metal, brick and concrete used in the 33 one and two story buildings that were taken down to clear the site were recycled.
"You don't smell any odors or have that diesel taste in your mouth," said Philip Pitruzzello, vice president Manhattanville Construction for Columbia University. "For dense, urban projects we are proving that you can construct responsibly."
With the potential for more than three new university campuses to be built in the city, including Cornell's $2 billion, 2.1 million-square-foot engineering and applied science school on Roosevelt Island, and New York University's expansion in the Village and their Center for Urban Science and Progress program in downtown Brooklyn, Columbia University officials are hoping that the construction of their new campus can be seen as a role model.
"Columbia's clean construction project should serve as a model for other construction projects. I hope when NYU does their expansion they will use the same strategies and methods and make the same efforts to keep the air as cleans as possible," said Isabelle Silverman, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund which helped develop the clean construction plan.
In Harlem, where children already suffer from disproportionately high asthma rates, a massive construction project without such environmental abatement tactics could pose a threat to neighborhood health, said Patrick Kinney, professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Some estimates say one in four children in Central Harlem suffer from asthma.
"You have such a high concentration of people that would be vulnerable to air pollution. And West Harlem, with their prevalence of asthma, doesn't need another trigger," said Kinney. "This sets a standard that other construction projects could follow."
Kinney credited group's such as WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which has 30 years of experience of fighting for cleaner air for Northern Manhattan, for pushing for the higher standards.
"They were mobilized to act about air quality because it's not a new problem or an issue. When Columbia announced their plans the community was ready to engage. There was no learning curve. They got the issue on the table so Columbia took it really seriously and was able to plan community engagement and pressure that helped to guide Columbia in that direction," said Kinney.
The university's efforts still have their critics.
Alicia Barksdale, president of the 3333 Tenants Association, a complex of five buildings ranging from 10 to 35 stories on Broadway between 133rd and 135th streets, said residents believe there is evidence of more air pollution than normal, as a result of the construction.
Some still blame Columbia for higher rodent infestation and fault a plan to give out air conditioners to some tenants to muffle construction noise as not going far enough.
""Our buildings are filthy, you can see the grit on the window sill," said Barksdale.
Silverman said there are other factors for pollution in the area such as the type of heating oil burned by buildings and the nearby North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The university also says it has taken steps to exterminate buildings before demolition as well as installing sealable trash cans with lids on the site to prevent an influx of rodents.
"They've gone far in the direction of ensuring the impact on the community is as minimal as possible," added Kinney.
Pitruzzello said the university is proud of its environmental efforts which may evolve even further as the full campus construction project evolves over the next three decades. There is a plan to collect and examine air quality data to see if the construction methods made a difference, said Kinney.
When it's finished, the new Manhattanville campus will stretch from 125th to 133rd streets and be completely open to the surrounding neighborhood. It will bring useful stores to the area and even have hidden environmental perks such as a new combined sewer overflow system that should help reduce the amount of untreated sewage that flows into the Hudson RIver, Pitruzzello added.
"Hopefully, this is something that can be replicated," said Silverman.