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MAP: Celebrities' Homes, Luxe Condos and Landmarks Burn Illegal Heating Oil

By Emily Frost | December 23, 2014 12:57pm | Updated on December 26, 2014 5:17pm
 The city is pushing to convert all buildings away from the dirtiest heating oil, but many b uildings are burning No. 6 oil without a permit.
Buildings Illegally Burning Dirty Heating Oil
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NEW YORK CITY — Keith Richards' Village penthouseManhattan Criminal Courthouse and the home of the Tribeca Film Festival are among nearly 700 city buildings illegally spewing pollutants into the air by burning dirty heating oil.

Those prominent addresses — at 1 Fifth Ave., 100 Centre St. and 13-17 Laight St. respectively — joined other high-profile properties on a city list of buildings using the banned fuel in their boilers.

They included everything from public and private schools to large landmarked structures like the Ritz Tower at 465 Park Ave.

The properties were all cited for burning No. 6 heating oil, a sludge-like substance that remains at the bottom of the barrel when oil is distilled to make gasoline. That leftover oil emits impurities when burned, causing air pollution and health problems like asthma and heart disease. 

New regulations that went into effect in July 2012 require building owners to end their use of dirty heating oil by the time their current three-year boiler permits expire or June 30, 2015, whichever comes first. 

Many of those permits have now expired, meaning hundreds of buildings across the city are illegally burning No. 6 oil — an issue the city is addressing by ramping up enforcement of the offending properties.

While buildings like the famed Dakota at 1 W. 72nd St. and 330 Hudson St. — which houses Pearson, the world's largest book publisher, as well as Cadillac's forthcoming North American headquarters — have already converted to cleaner fuel sources, numerous others continue to break the law.

Representatives for the owners of 100 Centre St., 1 Fifth Ave. and 13-17 Laight St. did not return requests for comment.

Records from the Department of Environmental Protection that are updated monthly show that as of December, more than 670 buildings were still using No. 6 oil with expired permits and have not made the conversion to cleaner fuel, such as No. 2 oil, natural gas, biodiesel or steam. 

Choosing to ignore the law is a matter of life and death for city residents, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration. 

Recent reductions in the burning of dirty fuels has led to an estimated 780 fewer deaths and 2,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations in the city each year, the administration noted this past April.

"Buildings are taking a really long time to make the decision and to make the switch [off No. 6]," said Luke Surowiec, a consultant with the NYC Clean Heat program which provides resources for buildings to convert to cleaner fuels. 

As a result, he noted, "what [the DEP has] cranked up is the enforcement piece."

DEP, which regulates boiler use, has made its policies regarding boiler violations stricter within the past few months. Now, a building only gets one notice of violation instead of three before the agency issues a cease-and-desist order, said DEP spokesman Ted Timbers.

Unless successfully contested, the notice of violation usually results in fines ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, he explained.

A cease-and-desist order escalates the consequences of non-compliance and could include shutting off the building's boiler, Timbers noted. By only giving buildings one notice of violation, "it speeds up the [penalties] process," he said.

But so far, the DEP has not issued any cease-and-desist notices to buildings with expired permits, Timber added. 

Manhattan has by far the most expired permits, according to the data. Within the borough, the highest concentration of buildings with expired permits is in Washington Heights and Inwood, followed by the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, respectively.  

Expired Oil Permits by Borough

One possible explanation for this distribution is the density and type of residential buildings in Manhattan, Surowiec said.

"We think that it’s because most of these are co-ops and condos and the decisions [to convert] take a long time," he said. 

The Clean Heat program has said in the past that it will first target the largest residential buildings, found mostly in residential Manhattan neighborhoods, because their size means the building's soot emissions are the worst. 

Beyond relying on the DEP to issue violations and cease-and-desist notices, however, the Clean Heat program can only do so much to bring properties into compliance, Surowiec admitted.

"We try to help and call these buildings," he said, but "there isn't an army" of Clean Heat staff. 

When Surowiec or one of his colleagues connects with the building management or owner, he offers free guidance on the conversion process and shares the financial incentives available, as well as financing options. 

"Half the battle is just getting people to take the [first] step forward," said Posie Constable, director of the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation, which provides funding for buildings looking to convert to cleaner fuels.

Constable's nonprofit and other financing operations are trying to persuade buildings that the cost is not insurmountable

Depending on the age of their boiler, building owners may have to install a new one in order to burn cleaner fuel. When the city first announced the Clean Heat program, Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated updating a boiler would cost around $10,000. 

The buildings on the DEP's so-called soot list are those that have let their permits lapse and aren't even in the process of converting yet, or at least haven't let the DEP know that, Surowiec explained.

"Changes to regulations were known far in advance," he said.

In other words, he added, they have no excuse.

"We’re trying to help you," Surowiec said of his message to buildings that fall into this category. "And we’re hoping to get to you before the DEP gets to you."