by Gail Robinson
Sep 19, 2005
September in New York marks the start of school, the opening of new plays, movies, and exhibitions -- and the end of the so-called ozone season, when television weather people warn anyone with respiratory problems to stay inside to avoid breathing the noxious air.
The last one comes as a particular relief this year after a summer when high temperatures raised the levels of hazardous ozone in the air, making New Yorkers wheeze, cough -- and try to stay indoors. Despite improvements over the past decades, New York's air still ranks among the unhealthiest in the nation. Recognizing this -- and faced with a federal deadline to clean up the air by 2010 -- the city and state governments have taken steps to address the problem. This month, the City Council passed a law requiring environmentally sound construction for city buildings, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission voted to allow hybrid cabs -- cars powered by electricity, as well as gasoline.
While environmentalists laud such efforts, they believe that more can -- and should -- be done. And with air not respecting boundaries created by humans, the purity of New York's environment is affected not only by decisions made here but by actions taken by power plant executives in the Midwest, auto manufacturers around the world, and politicians in Washington. With that in mind, many New York activists and politicians have put much of their recent efforts into trying to save federal clean air regulations. Failing to do so, they believe, puts the health of New Yorkers and the very future of the city at risk.
WHAT MAKES THE AIR DIRTY
With no steel mills and few factories, New York gets most of its pollution from diesel truck and bus exhaust, cars, and power plants. It consists of three major components: smog, soot and greenhouse gases:
The term originally came from combining the words "smoke" and "fog," and and referred to visibly dirty air polluted by the burning of coal and oil, which produces soot and ash.
Today's smog, which prompts those health alerts on steamy days, forms when nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons released into the atmosphere interact with one another, often because of sunlight, heat and stagnant air. The major component of smog is ozone. Ninety percent of all New York State residents live in areas that fail to meet the clean air standard for ozone, and according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air: 2005 report, the New York metropolitan area has the ninth worst level of ozone pollution in the country, with residents of Queens and Staten Island facing the most serious risk. Breathing in ozone can irritate the respiratory system, creating pain, shortness of breath and asthma attacks.
Technically known as particulate pollution, this is actually a mix of soot, smoke and other tiny particles formed in the atmosphere from sulfur dioxide nitrogen oxides, and ammonia. The lung association found levels of particulates especially high in the Bronx and Manhattan, with Manhattan having the 15th highest level of particulates among all the counties in the nation. Because the particles of soot and so on are so small, people can easily breathe them in. From there, they can enter the circulatory system and the lungs.
Greenhouse gases: These are the gases formed by carbon dioxide emissions that collect in the atmosphere and act like a blanket, trapping the sun's heat and so, most scientists believe, causing global warming.
THE EFFECTS OF DIRTY AIR
The effects of having all this in the air goes beyond aesthetics or minor discomfort. While environmentalists and industry may clash over exactly what the effects of air pollution are, few doubt they can be severe -- both in damaging the health of individuals and changing the Earth we live on.
Premature DeathsFor example, a study by researchers at Yale and Johns Hopkins universities linked high ozone levels to premature death, saying an increase in the ozone level of 10 parts per million could create 319 additional fatalities in New York every year.
Another study (in PDF format), this one by the Clean Air Task Force, blamed diesel exhaust in New York State -- and the particulate pollution the environmental group said it causes -- with more than 2,300 premature deaths a year in New York State, along with 3,600 heart attacks and 51,000 asthma attacks. Beyond the human suffering, the report continued, this costs money, with the noxious effects of diesel exhaust causing New York State residents to lose a total of 315,000 days of work a year.
The effects are severe in New York City, especially in poor, largely black and Hispanic areas, such as Harlem and the South Bronx, which have some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country. After testing children, Harlem Hospital found that one in four children in central Harlem suffers from asthma, giving the upper Manhattan neighborhood possibly the highest rates of the chronic lung condition ever found. Experts offer various theories as to why asthma is so prevalent in many areas: substandard health care, older housing, increased stress. But many residents of the affected communities also point to the high diesel emissions in their areas. some of it resulting from government owned facilities. Upper Manhattan, including Harlem, has, for example, five of the borough's six operating bus depots.
that the emissions from power plants and vehicles produce gases that almost all scientists agree create global warming. In the late 1990s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that, in the next 100 years, temperatures in New York could rise by four degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and spring and even more in the summer and fall. While scientists differ about what a warmer world would look like, a report (in PDF format) by the (pre Bush administration) Environmental Protection Agency said many of the effects on New York would be far from benign. For example, an increase in temperature of just one degree could cause heat related deaths to more than double to almost 700 a year. And the four-degree jump would cause the already unhealthy levels of ozone to rise, since heat contributes to the production of ozone in the lower atmosphere.
The Hurricane Threat
Global warming will almost certainly cause sea level to rise, as polar ice and glaciers melt and water s warm. "Gradually," wrote Moisha Blechman in the Sierra Atlantic, a publication of the Atlantic chapter of the environmental group the Sierra Club, "the natural rhythms of city life, dependent on sea-level (or lower) transportation, will sink under ever rising and expanding seas."
The ravages of Hurricane Katrina have raised another red flag: that a warmer world would suffer through more destructive hurricanes. With many meteorologists predicting that New York will eventually face a major storm, an increase in severity can only be bad news. While global warming cannot be blamed for Katrina, or for any single storm Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker, hurricanes "all draw their energy from the same source: the warm surface waters of the ocean." And so, as the ocean temperature rises -- a product of global warming -- hurricanes will gain strength. At the same time, the rising sea levels poses a particular threat to low lying areas like New Orleans -- and (though she didn't say it) parts of New York. In recognition of the threat, British insurance companies have predicted that losses from hurricanes in the U.S., typhoons in Japan and windstorms in Europe could increase by more than 60 percent in the next decade.
Although a new study in the journal Science concludes that the rise in sea temperature has contributed to the ferocity of hurricanes, some scientists object. "It's not linked to global warming or anything like that," Gerry Bell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Washington Post. "This is normal climate variability."
WHAT IS BEING DONE
Regardless of whether one believes a particular study, most New York politicians, from Governor George Pataki to members of the New York City Council see benefits in trying to clean up the area's air. And as a bonus, many measures could cut energy consumption as well. But some proposals, such as limiting auto access to Manhattan, carry costs that New Yorkers -- and their elected officials -- are loathe to accept. And some worry that air pollution regulations will make it more expensive -- and so less attractive -- to run businesses in the state.
Cleaner City-Owned Vehicles
Last spring, the City Council passed, and the mayor signed, five bills designed to make the city's air cleaner. The measures:
- require the city to purchase cleaner vehicles
- mandate that city vehicles that run on diesel fuel use low-sulfur diesel
- control emissions on trucks, buses and sight-seeing buses.
Savings in fuel and on health care would, proponents said, offset the higher costs of burning cleaner fuels and modifying engines. "This is the most important environmental legislation that this council has ever done," said Councilmember James Gennaro, chair of the environment committee.
But some people said the council could have gone further. For example, the Times reported, some members had wanted the sanitation department to convert to vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, a clean fuel. The Bloomberg administration reportedly objected, worrying that the vehicles might not be reliable.
In another measure to reduce vehicle emissions, the Taxi and Limousine Commission on September 8 voted to change its vehicle specifications so that hybrid vehicles could be used as medallion cabs. According to the commission, the vehicles would be cheaper to operate, with a hybrid costing between $18,000 and $19,000 a year, compared to the standard Ford Crown Victoria, whose annual expenses run at over $25,000. The hybrids, the commission said, are also eligible for state and federal tax incentives.
By combining a conventional internal combustion engine with an electric motor powered by batteries, hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, can operate more efficiently than standard cars of a similar size, use less fuel, and produce fewer emissions, according to the Coalition Advocating for Safe Transportation, an advocacy group.
On the down side, the hybrids have a higher purchase price and less legroom -- about four and a half inches less -- than the conventional taxi.
Greener Municipal Construction
On September 15, the council passed legislation setting stricter environmental standards for the construction and rehabilitation of municipal buildings, including schools, hospitals and city offices, and for private development projects that receive more than $10 million in city funding. The measure is designed to save energy and other natural resources -- and to reduce pollution. By removing unsafe building materials and requiring better ventilation, the legislation will reduce indoor air pollution, proponents said. But its efforts to create more energy efficient buildings will help the outside air as well. "Since most electricity in New York City comes from power plants in our neighborhoods, reduced energy consumption translates directly into less smog, less asthma and less heart disease," said a statement by www.nycapollo.org NYC Apollo, a coalition of unions, environmentalists, community groups and others supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The council's action is the latest in a series of moves to promote environmentally friendly and energy efficient structures --commonly known as green buildings -- in New York. The state has a tax credit for such projects, and the Battery Park City Authority, a semi-autonomous state entity, in 2000 adopted some of the most stringent green building requirements in the country. The city has guidelines to encourage sustainable buildings as well.
But, while virtually no one objects to such efforts, skeptics question whether they can be economical and whether green buildings can ever make a significant dent in New York's pollution and its energy consumption.
The Bloomberg administration launched a major offensive against indoor air pollution in its first days in office by proposing and winning passage of what was then a controversial measure to ban smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants and bars. Before it was enacted, the city health department had found that the average air pollution levels in bars that permitted smoking were as much as 50 times higher than at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel at rush hour. "Follow-up samples taken after the ban showed, on average, a six-fold reduction in air pollution levels in establishments that previously allowed smoking," according to a report (in PDF format) evaluating the anti smoking measure.
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE
While many environmentalists hail actions by the city and state, they believe more needs to be done.
Some, such as the New York Lung Association, want the city and state to regulate the amount of sulfur, a component in smog and particulate pollution, in home heating oil. Currently sulfur accounts for 5,000 parts per million in some oil -- far above the federal standard of 500 parts. Cori Freedman, directory of advocacy for the group, said the current high price of home heating oil could make this a tough sell, but she said, the modest expense -- an additional one or two cents a gallon -- from using low-sulfur oil could be offset to some extent by lower maintenance costs.
Discourage Car Use
Eighty percent of the city's added danger from air pollution comes from cars, trucks and other vehicles, according to one estimate. In August, Bloomberg announced that the city would use $71 million in money from the Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program to promote alternative vehicles fuels, improve pedestrian safety and promote bicycle use. But many environmentalists argue the city must do more to discourage automobile use and promote alternatives.
Some propose congestion pricing, currently used in London, which charges motorists more to use a road, bridge, tunnel or parking spot when traffic is heaviest. The idea is that this will encourage drivers to avoid traveling at peak times, reducing the number of cars on the road then and curtailing the weekday lines of idling stationary cars with their engines running, spewing exhaust.
A less extreme plan would put tolls on bridges that are now free. "On many East River Bridges, driving into Manhattan is free but taking a bus or train costs money," Andy Darrell, regional director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense has said. "That's the wrong incentive for economy and air traffic." Bloomberg originally expressed interest in instituting tolls on the bridges but abandoned the idea in the face of opposition from Brooklyn and Queens. Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer also opposes the tolls.
But Ferrer has said, in response to a questionnaire from the League of Conservation Voters, that he supports congestion pricing if it is "part of a larger framework" that includes an expanded rail freight system, efficient subways, and more ferries. Bloomberg has said he will study congestion pricing and perhaps consider it -- if it does not hurt local business.
Along with restricting auto traffic to limit pollution, environmentalists also call for promoting other forms of transportation, particularly mass transit. Some have urged construction of a www.environmentaldefense.org/go/railfreight rail freight tunnel to reduce truck traffic and the accompanying pollution. The federal transportation bill passed this summer includes $100 million for planning the tunnel, but the Port Authority has little interest in the project and Bloomberg is against it.
MAKING UP FOR WASHINGTON
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Bush administration and many members of Congress have taken a sharply different approach toward air pollution than many New York officials. The issue came to the fore again last week when the Republican head of the Senate environment committee, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma proposed legislation that would allow the government to suspend some environmental regulations that might affect the recovering and rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
While that measure would likely have little effect on New York, it does reflect the anti-regulation bent of many in the administration and in Congress. For several years, for example, the Bush administration sought looser limits on emissions from power plants. In response, New York City joined New York State and seven other states in filing lawsuits against five power companies that together account for 10 percent of the country's carbon dioxide emissions. Governor George Pataki joined with another Republican governor, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, to urge that their states be allowed "to have stricter pollution controls than those set for the nation as a whole." But the power plant issue calls out for federal attention because emissions from plants in Ohio, for example, turn up as pollution in New York.
Bloomberg has broken with the Bush administration on environmental issues as well, putting himself among the mayors of more than 130 cities who have said they would try to locally meet the emission standards set in the Kyoto protocol to curb global warming. The U.S. has not signed the international agreement, which President Bush argues is bad for the U.S. economy.
In August, New York and eight other states in the Northeast said they would freeze power plant emissions at their current level and then go on to cut them 10 percent by 2020. The action, the New York Times reported, "the first of its kind in the nation, came after the Bush administration decided not to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming."
The White House reacted tepidly to the measure, and some New Yorkers worried that it could boost energy prices to even higher levels. Environmentalists praised it, but they were realistic. While such efforts show ingenuity and can set a precedent, Dale Bryk of the Natural Resources Defense Council once wrote, "We're not going to solve the problem of global warming in the northeastern states."
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