Outside my window, a few buildings regularly spew black soot into the air. All winter, all spring, all throughout the day, on and off, as the boilers for heat and hot water kick in, every day. This happens across the city. The pollution is hugely improved because of NYC's Clean Heat program.

But it sure isn't solved. And here's an additional problem: It is difficult to figure out how to report the issue, as a plain old citizen.

I'm still on hold at 311, after 15 minutes, so I'm writing while I'm waiting. I am trying to log a complaint about pollution from 835 Riverside Drive and its neighbors. Watching an especially alarming spew of soot this morning--one that went on for 20 minutes--I took a series of photographs, then laced on the sneakers, and tracked down the building. I got addresses, names of the owners, the management companies, and the superintendent for two of the buildings, but not 835. I met a resident from that address, told him what was going on, and he said, "Ha, they don't care." 

The super returns my phone call, and says he has no idea what I'm talking about. Never mind that there is a thick residue of soot around all the stacks. He's never seen smoke.

Next, onto 311--online. Expecting this to be a piece of cake--given de Blasio's recent announcement about air quality as a top priority--I go to the drop-down menu of complaints on the home page. Air Quality? Nothing. Air pollution? Nothing. Smokestack pollution? Nothing. Literally nothing on the 311 home page that makes it clear how to report air pollution. There's garbage, and apartments, transit, graffiti, even. But no air pollution.

Next I go Old School, and phone 311. Eventually, I am sent to the person who will report this issue to the Department of Environmental Protection. He takes down the complaint.

All of this phone calling takes 25 minutes. All told, it took 45 minutes to log a complaint. 

I happen to be obsessed with air pollution--it is my job to be, for starters. But what about all the people who hardly have the time or the patience for reporting?

I've learned a great deal about soot and our hearts, and our lungs. Soot contributes to heart disease and stroke. Asthma levels are epidemic in Northern Manhattan. Smaller lungs take a bigger hit.

I know buildings are supposed to be switching from burning filthy #6 heating oil to #4 or #2--and the city overall has enjoyed much cleaner air since this rule went into effect. Except in my neighborhood of Washington Heights. But honestly,  I see soot billowing from smokestacks all over the city. Soot pouring over hospital buildings, and wafting across office windows. When I lived in Harlem, I watched it pour out of buildings all around 125th Street.

It is much harder to get smaller buildings to comply with the new regulations, and landlords claim that they will have to pass the costs onto tenants who can ill afford higher rents. Surely there are ways around this with creative financing mechanisms, if necessary. And then there's the foot-dragging, if not plain old cynical defiance of these rules. After all, most building owners don't live under the pollution.

Here's a mantra: You cannot fix a problem if you cannot find the problem.

For those of us who are trying to be good citizens, trying to protect the quality of our air, NYC needs to update its 311 home page to include air pollution, and make reporting much easier. These are problems that usually cannot be seen from the street. They are seen from our bedroom windows, so to speak. And they leave their dirty residue on our windowsills, and, more alarmingly, in our hearts and lungs. 

We live in a net of interdependence. Let's make all parts strong, so we can all do our parts to clean up New York City air.  


Airquality Australia said...

Just be glad you don't live in a place they use wood stoves! Even the brand new ones emit as much particulate pollution as 1,000 passenger automobiles ...http://environmentprogress.com/key-research-articles/australian-wood-heaters-currently-increase-global-warming-and-health-costs/ or http://woodsmoke.3sc.net/cleancarbenefits

William said...

Yes, Dominique, de Blasio is making air quality a top priority. He'll take care of it right after he takes care of his other critical important top priority, getting rid of the Hansom cabs in the park.

The FBI is now looking into the smear campaign against Christine Quinn orchestrated by the proponents of the carriage ban and whether or not there was any connection to the de Blasio camp. Christine Quinn didn't support the ban. de Blasio switched his position on the carriages about the time the smear campaign against Quinn started and his uncle, a union boss, gave $175,000 to the smear campaign. Things that make you go hmmmm.

Bill Thompson and Christine Quinn warned us about this bullshit artist.

He's lucky no one paid attention to the debates and were satisfied making their decision based on his son's "My father will tax the rich." television ads which were played over and over and over again.

Thompson and Quinn both pointed out that 'raising taxes on the rich' would never happen because Albany would say no and that de Blasio also knew that and was merely using his lying tactics to pander for votes by setting up a campaign based on class warfare. Taxing the rich result? Didn't happen and won't.

Bill Thompson created a website call BilldebLIAR.com that pointed out all of de Blasio's lies. Christine Quinn said de Blasio talks out of both sides of his mouth and would say anything to be elected. Prescient, and knowing, comment.

One of my favorite moments so far was the day after de Blasio delivered a big impassioned speech about how we all have the personal responsibility to follow traffic rules to reduce pedestrian fatalities. The very next day Marcia Kramer followed his 2-car motorcade as it blew through stop signs and was speeding in traffic, racking up enough points in an hour to result in a suspended license. Rushing to a crisis? Nope. Late for a photo-op of him filling pot holes with a shovel. Did he take responsibility? Nope. He said the driver was following protocol. de Blasio was in the front seat.

Al Sharpton now has a desk at city hall. Don't even get me started!

I guess that was a rant. :)

William said...

One more quick thing to add to my rant.

It was reported widely that de Blasio won in a 'landslide' and that he was handed a 'mandate' by the people of New York City.

The reality, based on the low turnout, is that 18% of the registered voters in NYC put him in office.

In terms of public opinion, that's neither a 'landslide', nor a 'mandate'.

Airquality Australia said...

In Sydney, Australia, 5% of households use wood stoves as the main form of heating. Yet domestic wood stoves emit more PM2.5 per year in Sydney (5,669 tonnes) than all other sources put together - industrial 1,935 tonnes, road transport 1,552 tonnes, off-road vehicles 952 tonnes, all other sources 184 tonnes - http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/images/air/SydneyPM25Woodsmoke.jpg

Congrats to the NY mayor for http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2611637/New-York-City-mayor-Bill-Blasio-wants-ban-new-wod-burning-fireplaces-diesel-engines-food-trucks-clean-air-initiative.html

As Dominique says, when 1 single wood stove emits more PM2.5 pollution (the most health-hazardous air pollutant we know) than 1,000 passenger automobiles, everything possible should be done to clean up this source of toxic pollution that leaves its dirty residue on our windowsills, and, more alarmingly, in our hearts and lungs.

Bill Lewin said...

All forms of air pollution need to be addressed including at home, wood stoves are terrible contributors to air pollution deleting comments can't change that fact. . PrtSc

Mona Molarsky said...

Tell me about it! I've lived on West 110th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam since 1978. For more than thirty years, I have been watching from my windows as black smoke billows from various chimneys on West 109th Street.

Your story is my story exactly. I've visited the buildings, talked with supers. They always deny their chimneys ever produce black smoke. I had to walk one building manager up to his own roof one day, to prove to him that his super was lying.

For close to 30 years I've veen calling the Department of Environmental Protection. Conscientious employees have taken my complaints. Sometimes an inspector will actually visit one of the buildings and issue a citation. The black smoke will stop for a few months. Then it will start up again.

Mayor Bloomberg claimed he'd achieved much cleaner air in New York City. Not in my neighborhood he didn't. The asthma rates are through the roof in this neighborhood.

Columbia University has promised to clean up their buildings. We are still waiting. The air is still filthy. We are still wheezing. Our children have grown up breathing this air. Who knows how many of them will end up with emphysema, heart attacks and strokes as a result? The old boilers need to be shut down immediately. The grades of fuel oil need to be changed now. We cannot let another generation of children breathe this stuff. Basta!

William said...

Sounds like typical Upper West Side lawlessness to me! Move to the Upper East Side, we don't allow that kind of thing.

Concerned Citizen said...

I think this is the link you are looking for....


sabine said...

to fix the problem, try attacking its roots: nypassivehouse.org :-)

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Carolyn Leach-Paholski said...

Not relevant to this post Dominique, but I just wanted to tell you that i read your New Yorker piece on treasuring our"clutter" in Melbourne's Age newspaper this weekend. You words have travelled the continents and come to rest in Australia!