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School Boilers Set to Go from Filthy to Not Quite So Filthy

heating oil
Photo by Ian Westcott
An old public service announcement in the subways advised New Yorkers to keep their furnaces clean. Decades later, building boilers still account for a major share of the city's air pollution.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg April announced the Clean Heat Campaign to end the use of No. 6 and No. 4 heating oil in the city, he made it clear he thinks these fuels are detrimental to the health of many New Yorkers.

While the administration presses private landlords to switch from both No. 6 and No. 4, though, the city itself plans plan to convert nearly 200 of its public schools from No. 6 to No. 4 heating oil --even though the mayor himself has acknowledged the hazards of heating oil No. 4.

"Shouldn't Mayor Bloomberg make it a priority to eradicate, rather than marginally reduce the problem of dirty oil that costs lives?' said Arthur Goldstein, teacher at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, one of the school slated to make the interim step.

Currently 232 city public schools burn No. 6 oil. The Department of Education plans to convert 198 of those schools to No. 4 heating oil by 2015. The other 34 schools are slated to eventually convert directly to No. 2 oil, according to Marge Feinberg, a spokesperson from the Department of Education.

"The faster these schools can switch to natural gas or No. 2 heating oil the better," said Isabelle Silverman, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization that works with the mayor's office on the Clean Heat Campaign. "But of course there are those limitations that the city has to deal with."

The "limitations" Silverman spoke of are economic.

The Price of Clean

It costs about $8,000 to convert one school’s boiler from No. 6 oil to the somewhat cleaner but still polluting No. 4 oil. That comes out to roughly $1.7 million in total costs for all 198 schools slated for the transition. Conversely, converting a single boiler to heating oil No. 2 or natural gas costs well over $1.7 million alone, according to Feinberg.

The transition to heating oil No. 2 is far more expensive than the conversion to No. 4 oil, because switching to No. 2 oil requires a full boiler replacement. That full boiler replacement requires the removal of asbestos -- the hazardous mineral fiber that lines and insulates many older boilers. The Environmental Protection Agency began restricting the use of asbestos in the late 1980s because of the damaging effects the fiber has on respiratory health.

Since many of the schools' boilers predate the EPA crackdown, full boiler replacements at these schools would require asbestos removal. Students and faculty cannot be in the building during this process. Thus, construction work must be done during after school hours and on weekends, further driving up worker costs.

Feinberg said the Department of Education has secured enough funding to convert half of the 34 schools it is targeting to switch directly to No. 2 heating oil. No timetable was given for these conversions.

Dangers of No. 4 Oil

The Clean Heat Campaign, which is a part of Bloomberg's PlaNYC2030 environmental initiative, requires that No. 6 heating oil be phased out by 2015 and No. 4 heating oil by 2030.

The 10,000 buildings that burn these two oils account for just 1 percent of the buildings in New York City, but they emit 86 percent of the city's heating oil soot pollution. Heating oil is the largest contributor to air pollution in New York -- a city that received a failing air-quality grade from the American Lung Association.

No. 6 and No.4 heating fuel are lower-cost unrefined residual oils, which when burned, release toxic nickel and heavy soot, or black carbon, into the air, according to the 2009 Bottom of the Barrel report by Environmental Defense.Studies have found that these air pollutants have serious effects on the health of city residents. On average New York’s nickel levels are nine times higher than those in other U.S. cities. High levels of nickel in the air have been associated with increased cardiovascular disease and premature death, according to Bottom of the Barrel. Additionally, soot pollution has been linked to serious respiratory problems.

"We know that exposure to this soot pollution increases asthma emergencies, as well as a wide range of heart and lung ailments," said Rich Kassel, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Buildings that burn dirty heating oil contribute more particulate pollution than all of the cars and trucks in the city combined."

In order to offset the fact that regular No. 4 heating oil is only marginally less harmful than No. 6 heating oil, the city will require that buildings use low-sulfur No. 4 oil, which is a mixture of No. 6 oil and a larger amount of low-sulfur No. 2 oil. This requirement goes into effect in October 2012.

The Department of Education plans to use low-sulfur heating oil No. 4 going forward at the schools slated for conversion. Low-sulfur No. 4 oil reduces soot emissions by up to 40 percent. However, a significant portion of low-sulfur No. 4 consists of heating oil No. 6, so it still produces large amounts of metal pollution, according to Silverman.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund report, No. 2 heating oil and natural gas emit 95 percent and 96 percent less soot pollution respectively than heating oil No. 6, and both "eliminate harmful nickel emissions."

From 6 to 2

In light of that, some experts think the city should convert directly to No. 2 oil.

The people I talk to, who are experts on the subject, feel strongly that this isn't the best approach that schools should go from No. 6 to No. 2," said City Councilmember Gale Brewer about plans to convert schools to No. 4 oil. "They're urging natural gas and other kinds of fuels that would be much more efficient and healthier going forward.

No. 2 oil offers other benefits as well. Boilers using No. 6 and No. 4 oil require daily maintenance during cold-weather months to remove soot and quarterly maintenance to ensure that the boiler remains efficient over time. No. 2 oil requires maintenance work just once a year, and natural gas just once every other year.

Considering that No. 4 heating oil is supposed to be phased out by 2030, Brewer wonders whether really makes sense to convert from No.6 to No. 4 oil now -- when schools will eventually have to convert to No. 2 oil later.

"They're going to switch it later. I just wonder if you're going to be spending money twice," Brewer said. "You're going to be spending $8,000 now but you will be spending even more money again. Sometimes you have to spend a little more money in the beginning to save money in the end."

As compelling as the argument to convert to heating oil No. 2 is, it’s unclear whether a city struggling to keep teachers in classroom, can afford to put the best boilers in school basements. But the health benefits of No. 2 oil and natural gas use are clear, most experts believe. "From a health point-of-view," said Silverman, "all 10,000 buildings burning four and six oil should switch tomorrow."

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