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Spills a Risk as City Converts to Clean Heating Oil, Officials Say

By Mathew Katz | November 14, 2012 11:21am

HELL'S KITCHEN — A massive heating-oil spill on West 56th Street has officials warning of the risk of more accidents as the city's aging buildings convert to newer, greener heating oils.

Starting in July, about 10,000 buildings around the city were forced to convert from polluting No. 6 heating oil to the cleaner No. 4 or No. 2 oils. Landlords have until 2015 to phase out their existing systems.

But Randall Austin, the chief of Spill Prevention for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a letter obtained by DNAinfo that the city's efforts to be more eco-conscious could have consequences — like the accident at the Sheffield on West 56th St., where roughly 8000 gallons of fuel spilled into the ground.

"While this is a noble endeavor, we in DEC are concerned that such projects may lead to oil spills, illegal disposal of waste oil, etc.," he wrote in the letter.

"Indeed, we have had several episodes (such as this one) where mistakes are being made, resulting in significant oil spills."

The accident at the Sheffield occured on Oct. 15, after No. 4 oil spilled out of a disconnected pipe in the basement of the building. Since then, the DEC and private contractors have worked on an extensive cleanup operation that could last months. 

According to a spokesman for the DEC, the oil seeped into the building's concrete, and there's also a danger that it leaked into nearby groundwater.

It was not immediately clear how many other buildings had suffered oil spills during the conversion process.

The city has offered building owners access to over $100 million in loans to cover the cost of converting to cleaner oils. The old No. 6 fuels spit dirty soot into the air, accounting for about 86 percent of total soot pollution from buildings, according to the DEP. The city's plan will help reduce such pollution by 50 percent over the next two years.

But a manager at a firm that handles such conversion said that even with the financing, many landlords who need to do conversions own older buildings and don't want to spend the money on the best conversion companies.

The manager, who asked not to be named, said that means some buildings entrust the task to workers who may not be experienced or qualified.

Molly Wulkowicz, a West 56th Street resident who's been alarmed by the spill and along with her neighbors involved elected officials in overseeing its cleanup, said she would not be surprised if that was the situation at the Sheffield.

"In this case, it was obvious that the work being done at the Sheffield was sloppy and filthy," she said.

"If I hadn't been persistent about the mess under my windows, who knows what would have happened at this site?"

The Sheffield did not respond to requests for comment.

John Maniscalco, CEO of the New York Heating Oil Association, said the actual mechanical process of converting a fuel tank to use cleaner oil was sound, but that it was prone to mistakes on the part of workers.

"It's usually some form of human error," he said, adding that the process involves draining a tank of one fuel, converting it and then adding another.

"We've been cleaning tanks every day for all the years that I've been in this business," he added. "When it's done safely, you never hear about it, so there aren't as many spills as you'd think."

Both the DEC and DEP did not respond to requests for comment.