New York Times: Studies Find Heavy Heating Oil Has Severe Effect on Air Quality

(January 1, 2010)

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January 1, 2010

By MIREYA NAVARRO

When it comes to finding a major culprit for the tainted air in a wintry New York, one often needs to look no farther than out the window to see a big building spewing black smoke.

The source is often No. 6 heating oil, the cheapest but most viscous type pumped into aging boilers, or its cousin No. 4 heavy oil, which is only slightly less noxious.

City officials have already promised to introduce regulations over the next year to phase out both types. But the issue has acquired a bit of urgency since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, released a comprehensive survey of air quality in the city two weeks ago.

The study found the highest levels of fine particles, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in neighborhoods where many residential and commercial buildings burn No. 4 or No. 6 oil.

Now pressure is building on the administration to give buildings a firm 10-year deadline for switching to cleaner oil or to natural gas. Environmental groups and the American Lung Association said the move would significantly reduce soot pollution, alleviating heart and lung ailments.

“This is a simple, common-sense solution to ensure that New York City residents are breathing cleaner air,” said Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications for the Lung Association in New York State and New York City.

City officials say they have been trying to settle on the best approach for ridding buildings of the dirty oil for about a year and expect to issue new rules early this year.

Building owners say it can take more than $100,000 to replace oil burners, clean up tanks and switch their heating systems to cleaner oil or to gain access to suitable natural gas pipelines.

Rohit T. Aggarwala, director of the mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, said the city must weigh the costs of a changeover and the availability of natural gas citywide. “We’re working on a fix,” said Jason Post, a spokesman for the mayor’s office. “We want to do this right.”

The Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental group, recently issued its own report saying that just 1 percent of all buildings in the city — about 9,000 large commercial, residential and institutional structures — create 87 percent of the soot pollution arising from heating oil. (The group has posted a list at www.edf.org/dirtybuildings so New Yorkers can see which kind of oil their buildings burn.)

If those buildings were to burn cleaner oil, the fund’s report said, the amount of airborne pollutants they release would decline by as much as 65 percent to 95 percent.

The numbers by which heating oil is classified are based on boiling temperature, composition and other factors. No. 2 heating oil, which is cleaner but more expensive than No. 6 or No. 4, accounts for an estimated 73 percent of the heating oil burned in the city, the environmental group found.

Evan Thies, a spokesman for the group, said users of the most polluting fuels tended to be larger buildings that could accommodate huge boilers that generate the heat necessary to burn heavy oil.

The dirtiest oils can cost about 60 cents less a gallon, which has been another disincentive for buildings to upgrade their boilers. But in its report, the Environmental Defense Fund said that cleaner fuels improve the efficiency of burners and reduce operating costs, compensating for the up-front costs and the higher price of No. 2 oil.

The group, using records from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which approves boiler permits, points out in its report that heavy oil heats buildings in some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the city, most of them in Manhattan.

The pollution is aggravated by diesel fuel emissions from heavy car and truck traffic in some areas. But Stuart M. Saft, chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, says the assumption that only the rich live in the buildings at issue ignores the reality that even at wealthy addresses, “there are people living on fixed incomes or on Social Security who bought their apartments 40 years ago.”

Aside from the $100,000 that he estimates it would cost up front for the average 100- to 150-unit building to replace its oil burner and clean up its oil tanks to make the switch, the cost difference between the dirty and cleaner oils is substantial, Mr. Saft said.

His group, he said, would oppose any phase-out that did not exempt “functioning” heating systems, as opposed to those at the end of their life.

But some buildings are already converting their systems as part of broader environmental efforts.

Diane C. Nardone, president of the board at 11 Fifth Avenue, a 288-apartment cooperative in two 20-story buildings in Greenwich Village, said it was in the midst of converting to natural gas from two boilers that use No. 6 oil. She said the switch would cost roughly $225,000, which the co-op will be able to cover after refinancing its mortgage.

But the cooperative expects to recoup the up-front costs in about two years through fuel savings, she said, given that natural gas will be cheaper than oil in the long run.

“We understand the impact it will have on the economics of the building and, equally important, on the environment,” she said.

The co-op is also installing two new roofs with vegetation that will absorb rainwater, and energy-efficient windows. Still, Ms. Nardone said that city and state governments needed to offer more financial incentives to help buildings meet any new environmental regulations.

“Give property tax credits, make loans available at low interest, if you want the general population to take the measures that need to be taken to improve the environment,” she said.

City officials say older people and young children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution, which can irritate the lungs and worsen conditions like asthma and emphysema, as well as increase the risk of heart attack and premature death.

Mindful of the health risks, the city is already converting some of its own heavy-oil-burning boilers to natural gas, after identifying 100 city school buildings burning No. 6 oil in neighborhoods with high asthma rates.