Why Is New York City’s Air Getting Cleaner?

By Keith Kloor | October 9, 2013 10:21 am

Several weeks ago, this was the headline for a press release:

Mayor Bloomberg announces New York City’s air quality has reached the cleanest levels in more than 50 years.

That’s quite a claim. Most media outlets reporting this story cut and pasted from the press release; few bothered to delve into the report Bloomberg was citing, much less provide any meaningful perspective on its findings. I asked students in my urban environmental journalism class at CUNY to look beyond the headlines and place the story in a larger context. Below are their dispatches.

New Yorkers are Breathing Cleaner Air Because of Natural Gas

By Shannon Ayala

New York City is a cleaner place to live because of fracking.

Or at least a recent report from the Bloomberg Administration seems to indicate this. The mayor touted results from a fairly new city program called Clean Heat, which at its inception in 2011 required buildings “to convert from heavy forms of heating oil to cleaner fuels.” Mostly, that turned out to be natural gas.

Mayor Bloomberg's sustainability goals involve supporting a ban on hydrofracking in the West of Hudson watershed in Upstate New York.
Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability goals involve supporting a ban on hydrofracking in the West of Hudson watershed in Upstate New York.

Bloomberg’s air quality and energy goals in the PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan rely heavily on nuclear power and natural gas. This puts him at odds with environmentalists and contradicts the water quality part of the plan, which  identifies fracking as a threat to the city’s watershed in the Catskill region. These divergent objectives saw Bloomberg advocate for a ban on fracking in the city’s watershed while supporting the expansion of pipelines that would bring gas into the city  from fracked shale in Pennsylvania.

This split approach to natural gas (all the goods but no impacts) rankles anti-fracking activists that oppose the interstate gas lines being built under the Hudson River and the Rockaway Peninsula. Eric Walton, a member of Occupy the Pipeline, says in an email:

Of course we want clean air here in New York City but we see no reason that our clean air should be obtained at the expense of clean air and water in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states where fracking is destroying the land, polluting the air, and poisoning the water. That trade-off is both immoral and unnecessary.

There’s a reason why Bloomberg seems conflicted about natural gas.  He commissioned a 2009 report that led him to believe fracking posed too great a risk to the West of Hudson watershed, a major source of New York City’s drinking water. He cited the study when telling the Delaware River Basin Commission in 2010 that he couldn’t allow drilling in the Delaware headwaters, which is also part of the watershed.

The Mayor later donated $6 million to the Environmental Defense Fund (which helped conceive the Clean Heat program), for an initiative that aims to improve gas drilling standards.

What the mayor and allies didn’t say when he released the report on NYC’s improved air quality is that while NYC Clean Heat is a local victory–saving a projected 800 lives a year –a broader battle over natural gas is still brewing .

***

Mass Transit = Cleaner Air

By Jess Scanlon

Michael Bloomberg has proudly announced that New York City’s air is at its cleanest levels in more than 50 years. The Mayor owes his bragging rights partly to buses, trains, taxis and bikes.

The densely populated city is a major public transportation hub. How this helps clean up the air is simple: More public transportation means fewer people drive into the city. “It’s the tradeoff between a dirty bus and all those cars,” said Nathanael Greene, Renewable Energy Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Of course, that tradeoff has paid even bigger dividends (in terms of public health) now that city buses have switched from running on high-sulfur diesel fuel to low-sulf diesel fuel. The latter emits much less polluting carbon emissions.

Public transportation is often the cheaper option for New Yorkers. A monthly MetroCard costs less than two weeks of parking in Midtown Manhattan. (Piergiuliano Chesi/Wikimedia Commons)

Still, any gains in air quality have to factor in New York’s immense public transportation system and the efforts to make it even more widely used than it already is.  For example, the subway system supported more than five million passengers on the average weekday in 2012. Bus ridership on that same average weekday was at about two million riders in 2012 .

For those who prefer slightly more private rides, yellow cabs have also gone green, with hybrid vehicles (which use a mix of gasoline and electricity) now accounting for a big chunk of the taxi fleet.

Then there is the bike craze that has swept the city. Bloomberg’s administration added about 290 miles of bike lanes to city roads since 2007. The launch of the new Citi Bike program, a public-private bike share further encourages biking in the city. More than 80,000 people purchased annual memberships to the program as of September 2013.

So while the mayor brags about how his administration has cleaned up the air through programs like PlaNYC and the Clean Heat Program,  millions of straphangers, bus riders and new bike enthusiasts deserve much of the credit, too.

***

Renewable Energy is Contributing to NYC’s Cleaner Air

By Candace Sheppard

New York State expects solar power use for homes, farms, businesses and schools to increase tenfold by 2015. Photo courtesy of New York Power Authority.

Yes, as the Mayor rightly asserts, cleaner burning fuel for heat should be celebrated. But there’s more to this good news story.

According to the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, 11 percent of energy used for transportation, space heating and electricity in all of New York State is powered by renewable resources, such as sun and wind.

Still, transitioning to cleaner fuel for buses and boilers is unquestionably the biggest reason why New York City’s air is the cleanest in decades. Additionally, stringent air and vehicle pollution standards, combined with an expanded fleet of hybrid vehicles and greater bike usage have all helped  to improve the city’s air quality.

“As a whole those measures are more important than renewables,” says Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Mostly because there’s less of a role for renewables in a densely developed place like New York City. Although we do see more solar panels popping up which is great news.”

In Corona Park, Queens, for example, the New York Hall of Science has used a rooftop solar photovoltaic system since 2010 to generate power to operate the building. A similar project at a police precinct in Astoria, Queens and a solar thermal application to provide heat and hot water for New York’s Fire Department also show that the city can reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

And continue to do so in the future. Greene says that the fastest growing segment of our energy is clearly in wind and solar power. That’s because New York City is connected to a larger power grid, of which renewables are contributing an increasingly larger slice of electricity. “It’s still a modest share nationally” says Greene. “We’re at about 8 percent right now and moving toward 11 percent in 2015. That number is expanding really fast.”
***

How Do You Measure Cleaner Air?

By Mike Russell

Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently crowed that New York City’s air is the cleanest it has been in the last 50 years. But how clean is it compared to other major cities?  Well, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, New York’s air ranks in 4th place among major U.S. cities, behind only San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix.

Air Quality Ranking of Major U.S. CitiesAir Quality Ranking of Major U.S. Cities
New York City ranks fourth, behind San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix. 

Bloomberg’s team determined its air quality by measuring PM2.5 (particles that get stuck in and damage your lungs), sulfur dioxide (SO2) nickel and other particulates.

But  analyzing air quality can be hazy work. The American Lung association (ALA) measures three different kinds of pollutants: ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution. On these measures, New York City doesn’t even rank in the top 25 of metropolitan regions (except on ozone, on which it ranks 17).

In addition to a different set of standards, the ALA ranks regions instead of cities alone. For New York City, this means they consider include parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all of which lower New York City’s rank. And to compound matters, the ALA compares the New York City region to all cities in the United States, not just the big ones.

Even by the ALA’s criteria, however, New York still ranks above many other big cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, both which have plans similar to New York City’s  ambitious environmental initiative.

For example, Sustainable Chicago 2015 outlines a series of actions to green the windy city, but it mentions air quality tangentially (where as PlaNYC has a whole set of goals dedicated to air quality improvement). The cities that ranked above New York City (San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix) all have plans to meet federal air quality regulations.

“City government’s number one responsibility, I’ve always thought, is protecting the health and safety of our people,” Bloomberg said according to the New York Times. “And when you look at the results like that, at the lives being saved and the illnesses being prevented, it tells you that we’re definitely doing something right.”

***

Let’s Not Forget About Nuclear Power’s Contribution to New York’s Cleaner Air 

By Jesse Metzger
Indian Point Energy Center Buchanan
Indian Point Power Facility. Photo courtesy Daniel Case, June 2010

Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced that New York’s air quality is the best it’s been in decades. The biggest reason is a switchover to cleaner-burning fuels for buildings. It’s a big win for public health. Can these improvements in air quality be sustained?

This might well depend on the fate of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, the mid-Hudson Valley facility that supplies New York City with roughly 30 percent of its electricity.  The other major energy sources are natural gas (35%), hydro electric (16%) and coal (9%). Renewable sources and petroleum make up the rest.  Opponents of Indian Point have in recent years ramped up their efforts to close the plant. If they are successful, what energy source would replace it?

This was a question taken up last year during a forum on Indian Point at Columbia University. Pro and anti-nuclear advocates debated whether it was wise or not to shut down the 40-year-old facility.  (To continue operating, a new 20-year license has to be issued.)  Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper argued for it to be closed:

There are the obvious risks of terrorism or an event like we saw at Fukushima.  But we are looking beyond just human safety.  One billion fish eggs, larvae, shrimp and crabs are destroyed by the cooling system every year.

But if the plant is shut down, what sort of fuel replaces the 30% of energy it supplies to New York City?  Last year, a report commissioned by the NRDC and Riverkeeper outlined how efficiency upgrades to existing equipment and renewable energy sources could cover the energy lost by shutting down the plant.  Speaking to Michael Risinit of lohud, an arm of The Journal News, Robert Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper said of the report:

I don’t think anybody doubts the power can be replaced. I think the worry is how much it’s going to cost to close it.

At the Columbia debate, Ashok Gupta, the director of energy policy for the NRDC, said he was concerned about “power diversity.”  He explained that it is important to have many different sources of power, so that the failure of one system does not take down the whole grid. With respect to Indian Point, he also smartly observed:

We are not going to live in a world where we have clean energy and no impact. All energy has risks.

***

Is the Air Improving in All NYC Neighborhoods?

By Priscila Ortiz

New Yorkers recently cheered the news that their air was much cleaner than just a few years ago. But in communities that bear the brunt of heavy industry and truck traffic, were residents also applauding?

New York City's air quality is  now cleaner than it was more than 50 years ago.
 

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, is quoted in the Mayor’s press release praising the administration’s efforts:

The Clean Heat program has led to extraordinary improvements in air quality across the City, and particularly in communities like East Harlem and the South Bronx that have historically had to live with the highest concentration of polluting activities.

Indeed, according to a 2006 study by the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems, the Bronx has some of the highest rates of asthma in the country. The study linked these rates  to pollutants from truck exhaust–many miles of expressways cut through Bronx county.

Then there is the high concentration of garbage transfer stations in the South Bronx and in parts of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, which means a daily influx of polluting track traffic directly into these communities.  So does all this noxious exhaust in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn negate the  mayor’s highly touted air quality gains?

The other lingering question about the Mayor’s Clean Heat program is if it has been evenly applied throughout the city. The data-driven Bloomberg administration makes it relatively transparent to see if that’s the case. An interactive map called, “Spot the Soot!”  on the Clean Heat program’s site shows where the polluting heating oils have been replaced with natural gas.

At first glance, the numbers of conversions to natural gas in well-to do Manhattan areas seem consistent with those in the South Bronx and Harlem, areas known for having some of the worst air quality in the city.

But take a closer look and notice that some areas of Brooklyn like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York, don’t seem to be tracked at all.

Still, there is no denying that overall air quality gains have been made, thanks to the Clean Heat program. “Neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Harlem and Washington Heights appeared in the top 15 improved neighborhoods,” Bautista said in an interview. “But just because they’re in the top 15 doesn’t mean the job is done.”

  • shusa2013

    Who edits and fact checks these stories? Jess Scanlon claims “now that city buses have switched from running on high-sulfur diesel fuel to natural gas. The latter emits much less polluting carbon emissions.”

    This is ridiculous – NY City rejected natural gas buses because of their tremendously high price tag.

    The City purchased several hundred hybrid buses but announced a conversion to new clean diesel buses. According to the New York Post, New York City’s MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) “hasn’t purchased an electric-diesel hybrid bus in three years, and as many as 389 — 23 percent of all its hybrids — could be retrofitted with new diesel engines soon.”

    The switch back to diesel engines will mean cleaner air in New York, according to Henry Sullivan, the MTA’s chief maintenance officer for buses.

    The hybrids the MTA runs conform to 2004 Environmental Protection Agency emission standards but the new diesel engines conform to stricter 2007 standards: “When we first went with the hybrid in 2004 that was the way to go. The diesel is better than the hybrid now,” he told the New York Post.

    So where are all these natural gas buses Jess Scanlon claims are “cleaning up” New York’s air?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Thanks for pointing this out–the change was made in the text to reflect that it was low diesel and not natural gas.

      • shusa2013

        Thanks Keith.

  • mem_somerville

    That was fun to read. It was an interesting look at the different ways you can focus on various pieces of a single report.

  • jh

    Keith, this was a great assignment. It would be interesting to hear your students’ take on the many different angles they came up with. How do they view the “facts” after reading one another’s work?

  • Matt B

    There certainly is no doubt that the air in NYC is greatly improved from 30-40 years ago; I remember as a kid driving into the city from upstate (the real upstate NY not Yonkers) and as you approached the Tappan Zee Bridge you would see a dome of brown to the south. Since air conditioning in cars was scarce back then you would also start smelling the smog that far away; once in the city you just got used to it. But, it was truly nasty back then.
    Cleaning up vehicle emissions of all types has been a huge accomplishment of the environmental movement and they should be proud of that. Also, the switch from oil heating to natural gas heating is a clear benefit, oil heat is a nasty enterprise or at least it was back in those days.
    I think the biggest air quality gains were in vehicles from the 60’s 70’s to the 90’s; today incremental gains will be expensive for marginal improvements. And I don’t believe power plant emissions were ever that large a component of the NYC air problem, the little industrial output you have in the NYC region is noise compared to the gigantic burning for transportation (and to a lesser extent heating) fuels.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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