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Deep (Number) Six-ed: Biofuels Replacing Number Six Heating Sludge On UES

number six heating oil is nasty gbnyc

Ahoy, good readership of gbNYC. I apologize for the early-week hiatus, which I assure you was not so much a part of our plan to re-launch gbNYC as bigger and deffer in Spring 2010. To be fair, we were already pretty big and pretty def, but I had some other writing to do and Stephen had some speaking-at-a-conference-in-Ohio to do and that left no one to update the blog. And so here we are, and it’s Thursday evening and… um, have you heard about the new thing with the biofuels and the Upper East Side? You hadn’t? Wow, well we’d better get right to that, then. (But again, sorry for the com lag)

We’ve written before about Number Six Heating Sludge Oil, an almost implausibly toxic tar-like substance used to fire boilers both in the South Bronx and in a surprisingly large number of older — and ritzier — residential buildings on the Upper East and Upper West Sides (in a link that has not yet moved over to the new WordPress site), as well as in the generally very green Battery Park City. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and will likely be illegal soon enough. What replaces the old sludge is another question entirely. For the most part, the answer will probably be natural gas, but in a few select buildings on the Upper East Side, the surprising answer is “biofuels.” In conjunction with a coalition of Upper East Side green groups — I’m on the email list of one of these, Upper Green Side, which I guess I should disclose, maybe? — Metro Biofuels is mounting an ambitious push to sub in a biofuel blend for Old Number Six, and recently converted the boiler at 308 East 79th Street, a pre-war co-op, to a biofuel/number-six blend. “By switching to the cleaner fuel, the building will enable the Upper East Side community and the City of New York to displace 1,500 gallons of oil annually, eliminate 28,000 pounds of carbon annually, and reduce air pollutants like sulfur and particulate matter,” crowed an unbylined piece in Biodiesel Magazine.

Unqualified good news? Yeah, pretty close, although a Number Six/Biodiesel blend still has some of that funky, gunky stuff in it. (That’s a function of the boilers, by the way, not any failing on the building’s part: buildings with boilers burning Number Two and Number Four heating oil don’t require any modifications to burn biofuel) But while it’s great to get all that carbon out of the air, the really exciting part here seems to be the way that community groups — and City Council member Jessica Lappin, whose hand I have totally shaken en route to the subway, while I’m disclosing dorky things about myself — are working to bring pressure to bear on their co-op boards, local politicians and building managers to make the change from Number Six to something with slightly fewer particulates and neurotoxins. I promise that the Upper East Side co-op in which I live — which this awesome map at Environmental Defense Fund revealed, somewhat to my surprise, not to be a Number Six building — does not know what the hell oil it’s burning, and the Upper Green Side campaign’s emphasis on education seems the right way to go.

It’s one thing to tell people that the 10,000 buildings in New York City burning Number Six Heating Oil are responsible for roughly 85 percent of the city’s airborne pollution; a number that big could shock anyone into complacency. It’s another to tell people that their building probably could be burning biofuel or biofuel blends right now without any modification to the boiler. The really good news is that the latter (as well as the former, sadly) happens to be true, and that real change could be comparatively easy to achieve, here. It’s encouraging to see the good folks of the Upper East Side — not necessarily anyone’s choice for greenest Manhattan neighborhood, generally — doing such good work on this, and to see them doing it from the ground up.

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