Volume 22, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 29 - February 4, 2010
B.P.C. may be greener but the oil is just as dirty
By Julie Shapiro
Environmental groups are taking aim at buildings that burn No. 6 heating oil, a sludgy unrefined residue that fills the air with soot.
Buildings burning this inexpensive fuel are common throughout the city — including in Battery Park City, a neighborhood that touts its groundbreaking green guidelines.
“It’s surprising that [B.P.C.’s green guidelines] don’t include this,” said Isabelle Silverman, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “If you think about it, these people live in a green building, but when they open their window to let in ‘fresh’ air, they let in dirty air. It would make a lot of sense to go to No. 2 heating oil or natural gas.”
Both No. 2 heating oil and natural gas are 95 percent cleaner than No. 6 heating oil, Silverman said.
The E.D.F. released a report last month showing that although the 9,000 city buildings using the cheap heating oil make up only 1 percent of the city’s total building stock, they create 87 percent of the pollution from heating oil.
At least six Battery Park City buildings use either No. 6 oil or No. 4 oil, which is similar. All of those buildings were built before the Battery Park City Authority implemented its green guidelines in 2000.
However, the green guidelines do not mention heating oil and the authority has not provided any incentives for buildings using No. 6 and No. 4 oil to convert to cleaner heating methods.
“It would make sense for them to look at [heating oil] seriously and set an example for the rest of Lower Manhattan and the city,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, vice chairperson of Community Board 1. Hughes used to work at the New York Public Interest Research Group and was the director of the fuel buyers’ group there in the 1990s.
Jim Cavanaugh, president of the B.P.C. Authority, said in a statement that the authority cannot force buildings to change to a different type of fuel, but the authority hopes to help owners who want to retrofit their buildings.
One opportunity for an incentive could be in the upcoming ground rent renewals, when many B.P.C. buildings will face sharp increases in the fees they pay the authority each year. The authority could offer to mitigate those increases if buildings add green features.
The international LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards also do not mention heating oil, perhaps because it’s a problem that is particularly acute only in New York.
Silverman, with the Environmental Defense Fund, estimates that it would cost about $100,000 for a pre-1995 building to buy a new boiler and convert from No. 6 oil to No. 2 oil or natural gas, though the figure would vary. Natural gas prices have recently come down, so building owners could eventually save money by switching, Silverman said.
Most of the Battery Park City buildings using No. 6 and No. 4 fuel are run by Milford Management and were built in the late 1980s and early ’90s: Liberty View, Liberty House, Liberty Court and Liberty Terrace use No. 6 oil, while the Regatta uses No. 4 oil.
Lorraine Doyle, who manages Milford’s B.P.C. properties, said she had not looked into changing the fuel type, but she guessed that it would be expensive and would require an incentive.
“Certainly if it came time to replace the boilers, it would be a huge consideration as to what would be environmentally friendly and what would be most efficient,” Doyle said.
Doyle has worked with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on other potential upgrades, but she said NYSERDA’s program is currently suspended.
Outside of Battery Park City, another several dozen Lower Manhattan buildings are using No. 6 and No. 4 fuel, including 60 Hudson St., 2 Gold St. and 9 Murray St.
Citywide restrictions on heating oil could be coming soon. Mayor Mike Bloomberg mentioned the greening of heating oil in his state of the city address last week, and Silverman said she expects the city to release phase-out guidelines for No. 6 and No. 4 oil later this year. The Environmental Defense Fund hopes the city will pick 2020 as the deadline for landlords to convert their buildings.
The city Dept. of Environmental Protection will issue draft rules “in the coming months,” a spokesperson said this week.
Bloomberg has proposed many environmental improvements as part of his PlaNYC program, but the real estate industry has opposed anything that would require existing buildings to do costly upgrades.
Dirty heating oil is largely a New York City problem because outside of power plants and ocean-going ships, No. 6 oil is only used in large buildings in the northeast, and New York has many large buildings that are densely packed, Silverman said. No. 6 oil is the black sludge that is left over after the refining process. It is more solid than liquid and has to be preheated before it will burn. Burning No. 6 oil requires a full-time super because the equipment has to be cleaned daily, Silverman said.
Still, despite all the extra maintenance, many buildings still choose No. 6 oil because it is 10 to 30 percent cheaper than No. 2 oil, Silverman said.
But those individual savings come at a high price, according to a report issued last week by the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law. The institute estimated that the city could avoid 73 to 188 deaths a year by outlawing No. 6 oil.
“It’s very toxic to our health,” Silverman said, citing the N.Y.U. report. “From a public health perspective, it should be phased out right away.”
The harm comes partly from the sulfur in No. 6 oil, which is breathed in as sulfur dioxide and can exacerbate asthma, respiratory illnesses and heart disease, according to a city Health Dept. report released last month. The city found higher levels of sulfur dioxide, elemental carbon and particulate matter in the air near buildings burning No. 6 and No. 4 fuel.
“Shifting use away from more polluting fuels, especially No. 6 and No. 4 oil, toward cleaner burning fuels, may help to reduce air pollution in neighborhoods with many large buildings and combustion boilers,” the city’s report stated.
Hughes, with Community Board 1, said the city should push for all building owners to convert to cleaner fuel as soon as possible, and not just for the health benefits — the work of retrofitting 9,000 buildings will create green jobs as well.
“It could help everybody,” she said.
C.B. 1’s Battery Park City Committee will discuss heating oil at its next meeting Tues., Feb. 2.