New York’s Dirty-Air Corridor

Upper East Side air quality among the worst in the city, mostly because of old boilers. This story was first published Nov. 20, 2013, in Our Town and the West Side Spirit.

In September, Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted the fact that the city’s air quality was the cleanest it’s been in more 50 years, and that air quality improvements have prevented nearly 800 deaths and 2,000 emergency room visits, compared to 2008.

All of which is great – unless you live on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, which rank among the city’s worst in terms of air quality.

“One of the reasons why pollution levels are high in these areas is due to the high proportion of large buildings burning heavy oil for heat in the neighborhood – typically large co-ops and condos,” said Madeline Kostic of the NYC Clean Heat Initiative.

According to Kostic, a byproduct of burning these heavy oils is that they emit fine particulate matter into the air, which can become embedded in people’s lungs and lead to or exacerbate cardiovascular health problems.


East Side State Assemblyman Dan Quart has made the city’s conversion to cleaner burning fuel alternatives one of his main issues since taking office in 2011. His office estimates that there are more than 3,000 buildings in Manhattan burning the dirtiest type of fuel. The residential nature of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side makes these areas among the worst in the city for particulate matter.

Two years ago, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection issued regulations that requiring buildings to convert to cleaner-burning heating fuel. According to the regulations, all new burner or boiler installations in the city must use one of the cleaner fuels: natural gas, ultra-low sulfur Number 2 oil, biodiesel or steam. All buildings must also convert to cleaner burning fuel when a boiler is retired or by 2030, whichever comes first. Last summer, the city stopped granting new operating certificates for boilers using the dirtiest burning heating fuel.

“The city’s policy has been effective to an extent,” said Quart. “Where it’s been lacking is there hasn’t been the financial resources to incentivize the necessary percentage of conversions that will make a real dent in the air quality.”

Quart said that while the overall air quality has improved in the city, “If you narrow it down to the portion of the Upper East Side that I represent, then the boiler conversions are happening at a slower rate than they are throughout the city of New York.”

An Upper East Side building burning No. 6 heating oil, courtesy of Isabelle Silverman, Environmental Defense Fund.

An Upper East Side building burning No. 6 heating oil. Courtesy of Isabelle Silverman, Environmental Defense Fund.

Quart has an active bill in the legislature that would provide a tax credit to building owners statewide for the installation of more efficient boilers. He’s also trying to make the essence of his bill a priority in the 2014 budget. His bill also has a sponsor in the State Senate.

Quart said that while Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s environmental initiatives deserve credit for converting 3,000 or so buildings to more efficient boilers, more must be done. The main obstacle is cost. Quart estimated a boiler conversion to the cleaner burning Number 2 fuel costs about $275,000 while a conversion to natural gas costs around $325,000.

“Many buildings…simply can’t afford the major conversions,” said Quart. “If they do anything to move off of Number 6 it’s to the half-measure of [burning] Number 4…the PM 2.5 emissions are still pretty bad with the Number 4 fuel.”

The city’s mandate that buildings convert from burning Number 6 to Number 4 fuel – which will go into full effect in January 2015 – is not enough to reduce particulate emissions, according to Quart. However, he’d like his bill and the necessary funds to be live by then, so that building owners will consider converting to the cleaner burning alternatives when they’re required to convert to Number 4.

Quart hopes his tax credit legislation will provide the push necessary for more buildings to convert to cleaner burning oil. The real conversion that’s needed, said Quart, is for buildings to switch not from Number 6 to Number 4 fuel, but from Number 6 to the cleaner burning alternative Number 2 fuel or natural gas.

“If we have wholesale conversions on that end, I think we’ll a real improvement in air quality on the Upper East Side,” said Quart.

About Daniel Fitzsimmons

Staff writer for the Manhattan weeklies Our Town, Our Town Downtown and the West Side Spirit.
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