am New York: Earth Day at 40: Four more steps eco-friendly NY can take

(April 22, 2010)

Thursday April 22, 2010 7:22 PM By Emily Ngo

Our tiny apartments and reliance on public transit make most New Yorkers automatic environmentalists.

And in the three years since Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the PlaNYC initiative, the five boroughs have made important strides toward the goal of a greener Big Apple by 2030. Wednesday, Bloomberg touted several achievements in a progress report, including the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees and the greening of the yellow cab fleet.

Both city officials and environmentalists agree the work is far from done.

"It's mostly words and paint, and we're hoping it gets more real," said Bill DiPaola, executive director of Time's Up, an environmental group that promotes biking.

On Earth Day's 40th anniversary, amNewYork explores four hurdles New York still faces.

Garbage
A citywide food-composting program would greatly reduce landfill trash, said Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Citywide food composting would require securing composting sites and arranging trucks and routes to pick up bagged food scraps.

San Francisco has a food-composting program, mandatory since last fall.

"If you send it to the landfill, something bad happens. If you send it to the compost pile, something good happens," said initiative official Robert Reed, of Recology.

New York officials support composting but have no plans to mandate it.

Air pollution
The city has reduced carbon emissions by 9 percent since 2007, Bloomberg said Wednesday.

Still, Gotham has ranked among the American Lung Association's top 25 cities for most ozone- and particle-polluted air. In upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, child asthma levels are four times the national average, said Michael Sielback, a top official at the association in New York.

"We're trending in the right direction," he said, "but still far too many New Yorkers are being forced to breathe unsafe air."

A solution would be legislation that regulates dirty heating oil, used because it's cheaper. About 9,000 buildings -- or 1 percent -- in the city burn unrefined sludge, the association said. That accounts for 87 percent of the city's "heating oil soot pollution," the group said.

A mayoral spokesman said the city is planning to phase out use of the dirty heating oil.

"We can reduce pollution from heating oil by over 90 percent with pretty much the stroke of pen," Sielback said.

Water supply
The city's tap water is threatened by a controversial natural gas drilling method upstate, environmentalists said.

"Hydrofracking," or the high-pressure pumping of water and chemicals to crack rock and access gas underground upstate, creates toxins that could pollute our watershed.

"It has potential to make the lives of everyone in New York City worse immediately," said Ben Jervey, author of the "The Big Green Apple."

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a study of the technique's threat amid city calls for a drilling ban.

The city said Wednesday that 28,600 acres have been secured upstate to protect the water.

Energy grid
The city's ancient energy grid needs an update, experts said. Though Con Edison is working to improve it, a high-tech "smart grid" would better accommodate the clean energy of the future — solar and wind power — said Max Joel, of Solar One energy group.

Revamping the aging grid could be costly but may pay off with greater energy efficiency. The city has been working with a state authority and National Grid to modernize the system.

Solar power is key, Jervey said. "Electricity is at peak demand and most expensive in the middle of the day, when everyone is blasting their air conditioning," he said. "That's also exactly when the sun is at its strongest."