Wednesday, November 30, 2011

‘Clean Heat’ in Washington Heights Means Better Air, Perhaps Bigger Bills

By Elizabeth Harball on Nov 29th, 2011
The Uptowner

Wood-burning fireplaces have long been obsolete in New York City, but as winter hits in Washington Heights, many chimneys still discharge dark smoke, dotting the skyline with smudgy clouds.
“About once every two hours or so, a great deal of black smoke comes out of a chimney on the roof of a neighboring building,” a resident wrote on Washington Heights and Inwood Online Community Forum. “Does anyone know if this is normal or if it’s something I should report?”
“Is this building near 186th and Bennett? If so, I’ve seen that too,” another member replied. “Huge puff of black smoke.”
Later, a third resident complained about a neighboring building: “They extended their chimney which now pumps black, noxious smoke directly into my apt.”
The smoke in question was likely emitted by boilers burning No. 6 heating oil, used in many Washington Heights and Inwood buildings. New legislation banning its use will make this sight a thing of the past by 2015.
No. 6 heating oil, also known as residual oil, is a byproduct of the distillation of crude oil, and contains high amounts of dirt and sediment.
“I still regularly see black smoke pouring out of apartment buildings in the 160s where I live, and have no doubt that it contributes significantly to poor air quality in the neighborhood,” Washington Heights resident Matthew Gallaway said via email.
Such complaints date back years. In May 2009, Gallaway posted to his blog a video titled “A Note To WaHi Landlords: Fix Your &$! Boilers.” It showed black smoke pouring from a chimney across from his apartment.
In April, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced New York City Clean Heat, a plan to eliminate heavy heating oils in New York City buildings. It’s a response to the 2009 New York City Community Air Survey stating that heating oil emissions account for much of the city’s air pollution. By July 2012, building owners will no longer be able secure a permit to use No. 6 heating oil and must convert their heating systems to use lighter fuels such as No. 4 oil, No. 2 oil or natural gas. By 2015, No. 6 oil will be prohibited.
Among city neighborhoods, Washington Heights has the sixth highest number of buildings using heavy heating oil. About 110 buildings burn No. 6  oil, according to a 2009 report by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Urban Green Council.  These buildings can be identified on an Environmental Defense Fund map, where buildings using No. 6 oil are marked with red dots. Several Washington Heights streets, like Bennett Avenue, Fort Washington Avenue and Cabrini Boulevard, are lined with dots.
The use of heavy heating oil is blamed for much of the air pollution in Inwood and Washington Heights. Eliminating its use is the “single highest impact strategy we can have” to reduce pollution, Steve Caputo of the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Sustainability and Planning said at a September town hall meeting. He referred to No. 6 oil as “really dirty stuff.”
During the winter of 2008 and 2009, the New York City Community Air Survey discovered high levels of pollutants associated with heavy heating oil in Washington Heights and Inwood. The survey detected fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, at concentrations 33 percent greater than the citywide average and sulfur dioxide levels 75 percent greater than the citywide average.
The survey will continue monitoring air quality until June 2014, said Professor Holger Eisl of Queens College. Eisl expects to see improvement in air quality after reducing heavy oil use. “How dramatic it will be, I don’t know,” Eisl said, but “air will be cleaner, no question about it.”
Poor air quality has had health consequences in northern Manhattan.  Asthma has been a longstanding concern, although asthma hospitalization rates have decreased in recent years. One in 20 adults in Inwood and Washington Heights has asthma, the New York City Community Health Survey reported in 2002.
Members of the New York City Clean Heat Task Force admit that phasing out No. 6 oil will not be easy for building owners. Owners will have to bear internal conversion costs, and according to this fall’s New York Energy Consumers Council newsletter, they will likely have to replace much of their heating equipment, which could cost more than $1 million in some buildings
New York City Clean Heat is encouraging building owners to convert to natural gas, which is demonstrably cleaner, cheaper and more efficient. In a case study by Cooper Square Realty, a Queens condominium reported annual savings of more than $98,000 after converting to natural gas.
Con Edison, the natural gas provider for Manhattan, is attempting to provide natural gas lines to as many interested building owners as possible. “We’re working with different stakeholders such as the New York City Mayor’s Office, the Real Estate Board of New York and the Environmental Defense Fund,” said Joe McGowan of ConEdison.
However, ConEdison cannot guarantee that all building owners will have access to natural gas by 2015. “What drives the installation of gas is the demand and commitments of customers,” McGowan said. “We don’t do speculative building.” McGowan said that ConEdison is urging building owners to first assess whether they can afford the conversion costs of switching to natural gas. “Gas may have significant up-front costs,” he said. “If it doesn’t make sense to go to gas, that’s OK.”
McGowan explained that ConEdison was encouraging building owners to join forces. If many neighborhood buildings want access to natural gas lines, the company is more likely to consider their application, because it will minimize construction costs and disruptions.
If Con Edison is unable to install natural gas lines for a building before its No. 6 oil permit expires, the building owner must substitute No. 2 or No. 4 heating oil. This transition could cost the owners of 550 Fort Washington Ave. in Washington Heights up to $150,000 up front, said James Maistre of Veritas Property Management. Maistre said the building, an affordable housing co-op, will likely not have natural gas lines by 2015 and is exploring transitioning to No. 2 oil. He says that the board will hire an engineer to evaluate the cheapest way to proceed. “It is a burden,” he said, adding, “It’s been on the wish list to upgrade.”
“It’s very costly,” said another Washington Heights building owner, who declined to be named. “Economically, it’s not convenient for me.”
The Energy Policy Research Foundation estimates No. 4 oil costs 50 cents more per gallon than No. 6 oil, resulting in a 35 percent increase in heating costs. The report goes on to say, “The transition to No. 4 oil will most dramatically affect lower-income residents whose rents could increase by over 10 percent,” though economic conditions and city regulations may prevent some rent hikes.
“There is only so much you can cut back on your heat,” said Ben Montalbano, an analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation who contributed to the report.  “How much that will decrease from quality of life, I don’t know.”
Isabelle Silverman, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund who was instrumental in passing the new legislation, readily acknowledges that the cost of converting to cleaner fuels is significant. But building owners could also save money, she says, explaining that boilers using No. 6 oil require extensive maintenance. “There is a lot of opportunity for efficiency measures,” she added, including thermostatic radiator valves, programmable thermostats and systems that prevent overheating and fuel waste. “If you combine the switch to No. 2 oil with efficiency measures, you will see real savings,” Silverman said.
As New York City buildings begin the transition to cleaner fuels, Washington Heights residents speculate about the day when smoke from No. 6 oil no longer rises above their rooftops. “In the future,”one member of Washington Heights and Inwood Online wrote, ”after all the boilers have been converted to burn Number 2 oil, or natural gas, I wonder if the air in Manhattan will become so clean that mosquitoes will become a big problem.”

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