Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union


As City's Temperature Rises, Air Quality Falls

Photo by Jorge Castro

It has been a great summer for anybody who sells ices on the street, repairs air conditioners, or enjoys a run through a park sprinkler. For New Yorkers who sweat their way through the hot days, though, it’s been struggle since the start of spring. That is because, this year, New Yorkers have lived through the hottest spring and summer on record. From March to June, we saw four consecutive months that broke their all-time record for average monthly temperature, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And July came close, only avoiding the mark thanks to an unseasonably cool final day that dropped the average monthly temperature in the city to 81.3 degrees, just one-tenth of a degree cooler than July 1999, the reigning hottest July on record.

Weather reporters tend to focus on the temperature readings, but hot weather also brings spikes in levels of ground-level ozone, more commonly referred to as smog. That's because ground-level ozone forms when volatile organic compounds (mostly hydrocarbons) and nitrogen oxide gases mix in sunlight. When there is more sunlight and temperatures rise higher and higher, the ozone reaction speeds up, creating more and more ozone. (By the way, ground-level ozone is different than stratospheric ozone, which helps shield the Earth from dangerous sun ultraviolet rays).

Unhealthy Air

Breathing too much ozone can trigger or worsen a wide range of serious health problems in the short term, including asthma emergencies, bronchitis and emphysema. For some people, inhaling high levels of ozone can lead to chest pain, wheezing, throat irritation, and congestion. Over the longer term, repeatedly breathing the levels of smog we have in New York City can reduce lung function and permanently scar lung tissue.

Children, the elderly, people with lung disease and people who work or exercise outdoors are all at greater risk than the general population.

New York City has never met the federal health standards for ground-level ozone. These standards are set periodically by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and are designed to protect both public health and public welfare (crops and vegetation, for example). The federal government sets two ozone standards -- the "one-hour" standard is designed to protect people from short-term spikes in ozone levels, and the "eight-hour" standard is intended to protect us from more chronic exposure to ozone.

Certainly, cars, trucks and industrial pollution sources are cleaner than they were 40 years ago when the first Clean Air Act was passed. But as our understanding of the health impacts of ozone has increased, the health standards set by the U.S. EPA have become more stringent.

The agency’s AirNow website includes a public awareness program that informs the public about pollution levels in real time and provides daily forecasts of expected pollution levels and historic information about past pollution levels. On the website, the EPA index system rates ozone -- and particulate matter as well -- from a scale of 1 to 500. An Air Quality Index value of 100 generally corresponds to the national health standard for the pollutant. An Air Quality Index rating of 50 is considered to be "good" air quality that has little potential to affect public health. At 300, the agency considers the air to be "hazardous" to breathe -- so polluted that everybody is at risk and serious enough to trigger public warnings about emergency conditions. In other words, when the Air Quality Index is below 100, EPA believes that the air is generally clean enough for all New Yorkers.

EPA declares an Air Quality Alert day whenever Air Quality Index levels of ozone or particulate pollution exceed 100. When the Air Quality Index is between 101 and 150, EPA considers the air to be "unhealthy for sensitive groups." Although the health of the general public is not expected to be affected in this range, people with lung disease, older adults and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone, while particulates in the air pose a greater hazard to persons with heart and lung disease, older adults and children. People in these risk categories are advised to avoid prolonged outdoor exertion when the index is above 100.

Thanks to this summer's repeated heat waves, the number of Air Quality Alert days has skyrocketed in 2010. Indeed, according to EPA, there have been 27 Air Quality Alert days since Memorial Day. All but one of these Air Quality Alert days were in the 101 to 150 Air Quality Index range. On July 6, however, portions of the city moved into the red zone of "unhealthy" as everybody could begin to feel some adverse effects of the high air pollution. In a normal year, there are fewer than five Air Quality Alert days in the city during May, June and July.

As Michael Seilback of the American Lung Association in New York said, “For the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who suffer from asthma and other lung disease, these high levels of ozone could make it difficult to breathe and could even lead to hospitalizations or death.”

Cleaning Up Summer

New Yorkers who are concerned about the potential health impacts of breathing high levels of ground-level ozone should avoid prolonged outdoor exertions when the heat and pollution levels are high.

It is easy for concerned New Yorkers to keep up to date with the air pollution levels and forecasts in their community. By subscribing to EnviroFlash, New Yorkers can get a free daily email with up-to-date pollution information for their ZIP code. Calling the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's air quality hotline at 800 535-1345 also will provide localized air quality information.

On Air Quality Alert days, New Yorkers can help reduce the city's pollution levels by avoiding unnecessary car trips, using transit and reducing electricity consumption wherever possible.

Hot summer days are also a good time to remind ourselves of the policy steps that our elected leaders and government officials can take to reduce summertime ozone levels in years to come. In Washington, EPA is expected to announce its new national eight-hour standard for ozone by the end of August. The agency is considering a range of ozone levels below the current standard, and setting the most stringent standard will be especially important. That is because the new standard will trigger revised state-level requirements to develop additional programs to reduce pollution levels to meet the new standard.

If we are ever to escape from the trends of ever-hotter and more-polluted summers, it will be critical for Washington to take positive action on these necessary policy steps, and for New York to adopt a plan to finally meet EPA’s health standards for ozone, once and for all.

Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he focuses on urban air pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization; is on the board of the New York League of Conservation Votes and blogs on a variety of environmental issues on the NRDC Switchboard.

Stated Meeting: Council Moves to Increase Recycling

Photo by Ianqui i

With many city residents still dumping all their trash in the garbage can, the City Council yesterday passed 11 bills to spur recycling in the city, including a measure that would let New Yorkers put all rigid plastic containers -- even yogurt cups -- in the blue bin.

In another action aimed at improving the environment, the council passed a bill to reduce pollution from the burning of heating oil in the city. And during its first meeting at 51 Chambers Street, where it will convene as City Hall undergoes repairs, the council also gave its final OK to two long-debated development projects -- one at the old Domino refinery on the Brooklyn waterfront and the other in Flushing.

In general, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, the meeting focused on created a green and growing city.

Revving Up Recycling

In the 20 years since it passed its first residential recycling bill, New York has failed to meet its own goals and fallen behind other cities in the country, according to most experts. While the city had hoped to recycle 35 percent of its garbage by 2007, figures released earlier this year found only 25 percent of trash was being recycled citywide.

All the garbage not being recycled, said, has to go to far-away landfills, forcing the city to pay shipping and dumping fees. This, said Letitia James, chair of the council sanitation committee, "puts an unsustainable burden on our city's economy."

Boosting recycling on the other hand, James said, will mean "more work for local vendors and more money saved in city coffers."

Of the bills only the one on yard waste -- Intro 157 -- encountered any opposition. The measure would require homeowners to separate and bundle grass clippings and the like for collection and eventual composting at city housing authority facilities.

Several members argued this would place a burden on homeowners who, they said, already are suffering from higher taxes and water bills and reduced city services.

"The city of Ne York is taking a perfectly biodegradable product -- grass clippings -- and suggesting you can't put it out with your garbage," said Republican Daniel Halloran of Queens. "It's another jab at the outer boroughs and homeowners."

Responding, Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan said the bill would not prevent anyone form cutting their lawn but simply require them to put the clippings out for collection at an appropriate time."

Also voting no were Councilmembers Vincent Ignizio, Peter Koo, Eric Ulrich, James Vacca, Peter Vallone, Mark Weprin and James Oddo.

Some aspects of the package intend to make recycling more convenient, such as Intro 148-A, which would expand plastic recycling. Currently the city accepts only some types of plastic for recycling, taking milk jugs, for example, but not yogurt containers. This bill would require the sanitation department to recycle all rigid containers following the opening a recycling facility in Brooklyn now slated to begin operations in 2012.

"The biggest thing that's holding New Yorkers back from recycling is confusion, Quinn said, noting that people now have to search for a small number on a plastic container and then check to see if the type of plastic is indeed fit for recycling.

In further efforts to make recycling easier, Intro 158 would increase the number of recycling bins in public spaces from the current 300 to 700 within the next 10 years and require the sanitation department to start a recycling and reuse program for textiles as well as recycling programs for batteries and tires. The bills would also educate the public about recycling by creating and distributing a guide on the residential program and requires the sanitation department to hold workshops on recycling for owners and employees of apartment buildings that have received fines for repeated violations of the law (Intro 147A)

Other provision address hazardous waste. Under Intro 162 the Department of Sanitation would have to hold at least one hazard waste collection event in each borough every year, while Intro 142-A calls for a voluntary program in which manufacturers and retailers would take back unused paint, which, according to the council, accounts for about half the city's total of hazardous household waste.

The package also looks at expanding recycling beyond the home. Intro 165-A seeks to boost it at public and private schools by designating a recycling coordinator in schools and providing recycling bins, while Intro 156-A targets city agencies.

And the package calls for a lot more studies including ones on composting of food waste (Intro 171-A) and commercial recycling (Intro 141-A).

All the measures except the one dealing with yard waste passed by a vote of 45 to 0.

Cleaner Heating

With heating oil accounting for a large portion of New York's soot pollution -- more than all the vehicles on city streets -- the council unanimously approved a measure it says will clean the air and in the process reduce the city's high rate of asthma.

The bill, Intro 194-A, sponsored by Councilmember James Gennaro, would reduce the maximum level of sulfur allowed in No. 4 heating oil, one of the dirtiest grades, by half. It also quires all heating oil burned in the city after Oct. 1, 2012 contain about 2 percent biodiesel. That biodiesel, said Gennaro, comes "from what I like to call New York's crop, which is restaurant grease."

The 2 percent of regular heating oil saved, he said, would be equivalent to a seven-foot-deep lake covering City Hall Park.

Domino Done

After six years of debate and negotiations, the council unanimously approved an 11-acre housing and retail project on the site of the old Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn. The current plan calls for 2,200 apartments there, with 660 designated as affordable. The project also includes community space that would allow for the building of a new elementary school if necessary.

The plan, which has had the enthusiastic backing of Bloomberg administration, was altered somewhat in response to concerns by Stephen Levin, the area's council member who initially opposed the plan on the grounds that it was too big and would not include enough affordable homes. Following negotiations, the developer, Community Preservation Corp. reduced the height of the buildings, but did not add more moderately priced apartments.

Flushing Commons

The council's vote to approve Flushing Commons also ends an extensive negotiation. This project would create residential, retail commercial and community space -- along with more parking spaces -- on the site of a municipal parking lot Flushing. Of the 760 apartments, about 140 will be affordable.

Small-business owners in the area, many of whom are Korean, feared they would not survive construction and worried they would be pushed aside by Chinese-owned businesses now located elsewhere in the bustling Flushing area.

To try to allay the small-business owners concerns, earlier this week, the Bloomberg administration announced it would provide $6 million to local merchants. The businesses owners originally were slated for $2.25 million in aid.

The money would go for loan guarantees, signs and various businesses services with half of it aimed at alleviating parking problems in the area during construction.

Council members hailed Flushing Councilmember Koo for his efforts in addressing the small-business owners' concerns.

The project was approved 43 to 2, with Councilmembers Gale Brewer and Brad Lander voting no.

Wind Project Off Rockaway Could Help Power New York's Future

wind farm
The Middelgruden wind farm off Denmark's coast has been supplying Copenhagen with energy since 2000. Now efforts are underway to bring offshore wind famrs to the East Coast, including New York.

Since April, New Yorkers have watched two environmental disasters in two different parts of the country with sadness and horror. On April 5, an accident at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 people. And, on April 20, 11 people died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion -- a disaster that has sent as much oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico every four to five days as was spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989. Both these events provide potent reminders of the dangers and risks of our addiction to fossil fuels to power our vehicles, homes and businesses. If New York needed a wake-up call for cleaner energy sources, these two accidents should ring our alarms loudly and clearly.

Amid this flood of disastrous environmental news, one piece of progress was reported on April 28. On that date, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the first-ever, utility-scale offshore wind energy project -- the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound -- after a nine-year federal review process. This process lasted longer than anybody expected, but was necessary to ensure that the groundbreaking project would properly protect the marine habitat while effectively harnessing the renewable wind available at the site.

In contrast with West Virginia's coal and the Gulf of Mexico's oil, wind power is a renewable resource that can reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Unlike burning coal in power plants or using oil to power our vehicles, wind farms do not emit particulate soot, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic pollution that triggers asthma emergencies, cancer, heart attacks and premature deaths. And of course, wind power is free of the environmental destruction that follows when things go wrong in the fossil fuel exploration business.

New York is one of the leading states for wind power in the nation --- and its growth is just taking off. As of the end of 2009, existing projects contributed 1,274 megawatts of capacity to our power grid, ranking New York eighth in the nation in terms of existing wind energy capacity. Perhaps most significantly, roughly 850 of these megawatts have come online in the last two years.

Upstate New York's wind projects are much smaller than Cape Wind or a typical coal-burning power plant – they range from 20 to 126 megawatts, in contrast to the 420 megawatts planned for Cape Wind and the 667 megawatts generated by the typical coal plant. In order for wind power to replace a significant amount of fossil fuel energy, New York's nascent wind industry has to move toward utility-scale projects on the scale of Cape Wind and other projects that have been proposed elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

Wind at Sea

A utility-scale offshore wind facility has several advantages over smaller, land-based wind farms upstate. First, ocean-based wind power is stronger, more consistently available, and could be situated closer to Long Island and New York City electricity customers. Second, unlike ocean-based wind power, the availability of land-based wind power tends to decrease during the hottest part of a summer day, which coincides with the times of peak electricity demand in the downstate region. Third, because ocean-based wind power would be closer to consumers, transmission costs should be lower than remote, land-based wind power sources. Of course, community concerns about visibility of the turbines from shore, the need for new or reconfigured transmission lines, and any potential impacts on birds or marine life have to be addressed, and any significant environmental impacts must be identified and mitigated.

The Long Island Power Authority, the New York Power Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the city’s Economic Development Corp. have teamed up with Con Edison to explore the possibility of a utility-scale wind development that would be located roughly 13 nautical miles off the Rockaway Peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean.

The concept for the offshore wind project emerged from Gov. David A. Paterson’s Renewable Energy Task Force and is consistent with the governor’s “45 by 15” program, which set a statewide goal that the state must meet 45 percent of its electricity needs through improved energy efficiency and renewable sources by the year 2015.

The group is considering a wind project that would generate up to 350 megawatts of power initially, building up to 700 megawatts. At this scale, the project would be the largest offshore wind project in the country --- and would remove carbon dioxide gases equivalent to removing 68,000 cars from our region's roads annually. Operating at 30 percent of its capacity, a 700 megawatt project would generate enough energy for a half million homes.

Like Cape Wind, the path to developing this project will be filled with many procedural steps. In June 2009, the project's sponsors issued a “Request for Interest” that sought to gauge industry interest in the project. The responses to that request now are being used to create a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) that should be released soon. At that stage, New Yorkers will get a clearer sense of the exact location, cost and other details of the various proposals that will be considered. A joint Long Island Power Authority/Con Edison feasibility study has already concluded that, with upgrades to their existing transmission systems, the project could connect to up to 700 megawatts of offshore wind power to the power grid . Toward that end, an application to “interconnect” the offshore project has been filed with the New York Independent System Operator, the operators of the state’s power grid, to supply up to 700 megawatts by 2015.

By itself, wind power -- whether utility-scale offshore projects or generated in smaller projects upstate -- will not be sufficient to wean ourselves from our addiction to dirty fossil fuels. Combined with cleaner, more efficient power plants; increased efficiency in our buildings, appliances, and vehicles; and as part of an array of renewable fuels that includes increased solar power and advanced biofuels, wind power can be a significant part of our long-term climate and energy solution. As we continue to watch the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfold and learn more about the dangers and risks of coal mining and coal-fired power plants, the potential benefits of each of these strategies need to be explored fully.

Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he focuses on urban air pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization; is on the board of the New York League of Conservation Votes and blogs on a variety of environmental issues on the NRDC Switchboard.

Can the City -- and the Oyster -- Save Jamaica Bay?

Photo by Unforth
The marshes of Jamaica Bay have been shrinking for decades, essentially vanishing into New York's toxic waters.

The largest urban wildlife preserve in the United States sits adjacent to Kennedy Airport, near the high-rise apartments of Starrett City and the Rockaway housing projects. Home to the peregrine falcon, the loggerhead sea turtle, the short-eared owl, the area -- Jamaica Bay -- at the intersection of Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island, serves as a stopover for 20 percent of American bird species on their annual migration along the East Coast.

For years, though, this estuary, a shallow marsh where fresh and saltwater meet, has been vanishing into the toxic waters of the New York City harbor, losing an estimated 33 acres annually to deterioration, nitrogen buildup and rising sea levels. Spanning some 16,000 acres about a century ago, the salt march islands have shrunk to a mere 800 acres. Thought not nearly as dramatic as the environmental catastrophe now confronting the Louisiana coast, the threat to Jamaica Bay could completely destroy the marsh by 2024, decimating the home for an abundance of rare and endangered plants and animals.

"Marshland completely changes the nature of the bay," says Larry Levine, staff attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council. "If it were to ever disappear and become open water, it would be a tremendous loss of natural habitat."

Now, the federal state and city governments, prodded by citizen's groups, have stepped up their efforts to preserve the area. This year, government and private groups collaborated to update the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan to try to avert disaster in the urban refuge. Whether government will keep its commitment and whether its actions can reverse the decades of deterioration remains to be seen.

[For more on efforts to revitalize New York's waterfront, go here.]

Destruction of an Ecosystem

Spartina cod grass anchors the land of the marsh in place. To survive, the grass must receive fresh water rich with oxygen and nutrient-loaded sediment. Small streams in Queens and Brooklyn once provided this, but many of these vital veins have been paved over the decades.

Four sewage plants ringing Jamaica Bay contribute further to the deterioration of the marsh by spewing 250 million gallons of nitrogen and large amounts of chlorine into the water every day. Ironically the nitrogen has worsened since 1992 when the government, in an effort to prevent pollution, banned the dumping of sewage into the ocean and instead diverted the treated wastewater into the bay. The excess nitrogen in the water is naturally converted into hydrogen sulfide, which kills the roots of the marsh grass.

In this nitrogen-rich environment, weed-like algae blooms thrive, suffocating the estuary by draining it of dissolved oxygen. Algae blooms kill the thousands of fish found floating belly-up in the very waters that are meant to nourish them.

In addition, during heavy rains, untreated oils and toxins wash from nearby streets and parking lots when storm drains overflow and end up in the bay. The bay also shares many of the contaminants that pollute the rest of New York harbor, such as dioxins, PCB particles, and mercury.

"The New York harbor is a wasteland," said Jeff Levinton, professor of marine ecology at SUNY Stonybrook.

Jamaica Bay
Photo by Gail Robinson
Humans have taken their toll on Jamaica Bay.

Next-generation issues also are emerging, explained Levine. Studies show that Jamaica Bay flounder are affected by pharmaceuticals flushed through the sewage system and not removed by treatment plants. The population of male flounder has drastically diminished because of the feminizing effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals -- a pattern Levine says is being observed around the world.

Sounding the Alarm

Dan Mundy, founder of citizen group EcoWatchers, noticed that Jamaica Bay was ailing in the mid 1990s. By 2000, he said, as many as 50 acres of saltwater marsh were being lost every year. And in 2002, the state authorized a study of why the marshland might be vanishing.

It was not until 2005, though, that Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a measure calling for the city Department of Environmental Protection to devise a plan to save the bay and creating a seven-person advisory task force. The committee included community activists and representatives of nonprofit organizations and government agencies. The resulting report presented a number of options, including installing storm sewers for flood prevention, dredging and re-contouring creeks, restoring eroded land, re-oxygenating the water and hiring pump-out boats to clean waste. Overall, the committee wanted visitors to Jamaica Bay and the government to be more vigilant of the estuary's condition.

Gradually, steps to restore and preserve the marsh began. Between 2006 and 2007, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers allocated $13 million to restore Elders Point East, an island marsh which once spanned 132 vegetated acres, but which had broken apart to a mere 21 acres.

While activists applauded many of these efforts, a number of them faulted the city for failing to do more to reduce nitrogen levels in the bay. For years city officials maintained that little evidence linked the disappearance of the marshes and nitrogen levels in the bay and balked at spending millions and millions of dollars to address the nitrogen levels.

By 2010, New York City faced a possible lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act. The threat spurred intense negotiations between citizen groups, the Department of Environmental Protection, then Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler and other City Hall officials. The city, according to Mundy, expressed concern about the cost of the technological upgrades needed to address the nitrogen problem, but over time became convinced that the installations were necessary for the bay's survival.

"It shouldn't be a matter of economics. Not when it comes to the environment. Not when it comes to Jamaica Bay," Mundy said.

Cutting the Nitrogen

In February 2010, Bloomberg announced the city would commit $115 million for a combination of efforts to safeguard the only wildlife refuge accessible via subway. As part of that, he said New York would spend $100 million to install new nitrogen control technology at sewage treatment plants on the bay.

Don Riepe, who headed negotiations on behalf of the American Littoral Society, said the city pledged another $15 million to support marsh restoration. The Army Corps of Engineers will match the restoration funds two-to-one.

The first of the plant upgrades will begin operating in 2014. Technology to control nitrogen will be installed at the 26th Ward and Coney Island wastewater treatment plants in Brooklyn, and at the Rockaway plant in Queens. These efforts are predicted to reduce nitrogen discharges by 50 percent over the next decade and to allow the bay to filter its waters over time.

Reclamation of Elders Point West Island has already begun. Clean fill, or "slurry" -- muck being dredged from waters around the city -- is currently being shipped from the harbor and Long Island and will become 35 new acres of marsh. The U.S Army Corps of Engineers is hand-seeding Spartina grass into the fill. When they finish this at the end of the summer, they will move on to reclaim Yellow Bar island.

Jamaica Bay
Photo by Gail Robinson
Restoring grassland is essential to the survival of marshes so many animals call home.

Wave attenuators, marina-like docks that act as buffers against beach-deteriorating waves, are to be installed between 2014 and 2019.

Despite all this technology, though, Jamaica Bay's brightest new hope may be a bivalve that once lived in the 350 square miles of the estuary: the oyster.

A Natural Solution

Oysters last thrived in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary in the early 20th century. Describing the bivalve as a "keystone" species that affects other components of its ecosystem, NY/NJ Baykeeper has championed experimental oyster farming. Every animal can filter nitrogen and pollutants from 50 gallons of water daily. They eat oxygen-guzzling phytoplankton that suffocates the bay. In, addition the beds where the oysters live serve as homes for small marine organisms and the fish that feed on them.

"Right now you can hardly find a live oyster in Jamaica Bay," says Levinton.

Their decline both signifies and intensifies the bay's ailments. Chester Zarnoch, associate professor of natural sciences at Baruch College, and his colleague Tim Hoellein have received funds from the National Science Foundation to study the growth and survival of oysters in the estuary and to determine their potential in restoring it.

Zarnoch says that there has been tremendous growth and evidence of spawning where the bivalves have been re-introduced.

While that is good news, the oysters may not solve the nitrogen problem in the long term. Research has brought to light that oysters, while they do filter nitrogen, they simply store the substance in their bodies and release it back into the environment upon their death. Scientists now hope to harness the oyster's digestive cycle to remove the nitrogen from the water.

"In Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound, you can remove nitrogen from the water by removing oysters and consuming them," said Zarnoch. "But we can't consume them from Jamaica Bay because of the amount of bacteria present."

Oyster gardening is still in the beginnings stages of a two-year experiment that will determine whether they will benefit the bay's condition. The next several years will be critical to see if the oysters can once again thrive in the estuary as part of a recovering environment and if the marshes can once again shelter and nourish an authentic mix of native New Yorkers.

This article was written under a partnership between Gotham Gazette and the Baruch College's Department of Journalism and Writing Professions.

Creating a Plan to Connect New Yorkers and Their Harbor

Brooklyn bridge park
The new Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of many signs of renewal along New York's waterfront.

For too many in the New York metropolitan area, our harbor has been a virtual desert, devoid of life and activity for more than a century. New Yorkers around our magnificent estuary have been unable to connect to the water that surrounds them, first cut off by industry, highways and rail and more recently by the lack of a comprehensive vision, adequate funding and coordinated regulatory system for our shore.

This all is starting to change. The literal green shoots of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island. are the most conspicuous evidence of waterfront renewal. Hundreds of other initiatives throughout the metropolitan area are also underway, less visible but no less important. The entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that are hallmarks for our city are evident at the water's edge from the Rockaways to the South Bronx. Together we are bringing our harbor and waterways back to life.

[For a report on an effort to preserve and improve one part of New York's waterfront -- Jamaica Bay -- go here.]

Citizens have united to clean the water; protect the vital but often overlooked maritime industry; make sailing, paddling and rowing more accessible to the public; support ferry service; and create waterfront parks large and small. Together, all these activists and organizations have formed a unique "Blue Movement" demanding change in how we use and manage this shared and precious resource.

Making WAVES

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has caught and contributed to this civic wave, most recently with his announcement of WAVES (Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy). The heart of WAVES is a new waterfront plan; but more important, like its sister initiative, PlaNYC2030, it is a full court press using all sectors of city government to coordinate and advance efforts to enhance our harbor. This administration realizes the push is just as important as the plan.

WAVES will certainly benefit from government leadership, but what it needs to succeed is citizen input. Through the spring and summer, the Department of City Planning will be gathering comments and ideas for the waterfronts throughout the five boroughs. New Yorkers should get involved and be specific: What combined sewer outfalls need to be abated; where would be a great places for docks; where can children in your neighborhood get to the water for environmental education; where should a kayak launch be located; what businesses should use the waterways to move goods and get trucks off our roads. To learn how to submit comments for WAVES and to get involved in the outreach sessions, go to http://www.waterfrontalliance.org/projects/cwp. By law, the city's Comprehensive Waterfront Plan produced through WAVES must be completed by Dec. 31, 2010.

The city's effort is a great step forward, but for our harbor more is needed. Too often protracted battles over what can or cannot be built on or near the water have slowed or stopped parks and other waterfront development. The overwhelming bureaucratic morass at the water's edge has prompted many developers, park advocates and maritime businesses to alter or abandon innovative plans.

WAVES provides an opportunity to align our city and state agencies with progressive waterfront policy and waterfront regulation and use all of government's tools -- zoning, incentives, and regulatory reforms -- to coordinate protection and enhancement of environmentally sensitive areas, growth of the water-dependent maritime industry, and creation of great waterfront parks, new docks and more water access.

governors island
Governors Island presents another opportunity for New Yorkers to reconnect with their harbor.

At the same time, the City of New York must reach out to its sister municipalities on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as we put together and implement this new comprehensive plan. Fish don't care about boundary lines drawn down the middle of the harbor and neither should we.

A Fair Share

Even with a great waterfront plan and new alignment between the state and city we can’t have a great waterfront without money. This brings us to the greatest challenge facing Bloomberg and all involved with WAVES: ensuring our region receives a fair share of federal funds to support our harbor. Our harbor, known as the Hudson Raritan Estuary in environmental circles, has received the short end of the stick. As noted in a recent letter from Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson to President Barack Obama, our harbor was allocated $800,000 of federal restoration funds last year, an insignificant appropriation compared to the 2010 allocation of $475 million to the Great Lakes Region. Gateway National Recreation Area, the fourth most visited in the country, is similarly short-changed. Our commercial port suffers from insufficient federal rail infrastructure, forcing 98 percent of the goods delivered in the harbor onto trucks that choke our streets and highways.

What is the cure for this federal disinvestment? The area's Congress members must establish a New York and New Jersey Harbor Caucus to champion our region’s harbor and waterfront needs in the halls of the Capitol.

The very names of our neighborhoods ring with maritime history and the echoes of a lost connection to the water; from Baychester to Bay Ridge, from Port Morris to Port Richmond, these communities and dozens of others beg for a reconnection to the water. Imagine docks in every neighborhood for recreation and education, where kayak, historic vessels and tall ships can more. Envision ferries that can ease commuting, and harbor cruises and sailing ships picking up and dropping off passengers. And imagine the vital Port of New York once again the center of commercial shipping with a growing number of green and blue-collar jobs in its bustling port and maritime industry.

Accomplishing all this will take vision, energy, leadership and money. It will also take the collective effort of everyone who cares about our waterfront's future to be active voices in WAVES and to hold our elected officials accountable for a fair share for our harbor. The result will be a renewed and revitalized Gateway to America, What a legacy that would be for future generations, here, across the country and around the world.

Roland Lewis is president and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

For Budget Buses, Chinatown's Clogged Streets Are Wide Open

Photo (cc) 2010
Adam E. Moreira
Passengers going to Philadelphia board a budget bus in Chinatown.

Around the clock, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, crowds fill the narrow Chinatown sidewalks waiting to board buses run by companies such as Double Happiness, Fung Wah and Lucky Star. For as little as $15, these buses take budget-conscious riders to Philadelphia, Boston or Washington, D.C.

Critics of the buses say while they might benefit riders' pocketbooks, they put a burden on residents and businesses near the stops, polluting the air and crowding the streets and sidewalks.

"The cheap service is only possible by the very fact the bus companies that profit off of this don't have to pay for the problems caused," said Community Board 3 member Thomas Yu. Yu, co-chair of the Chinatown Working Group and chair of the board's Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Waterfront Committee, blames the buses for clogging traffic, blocking truck and pedestrian business and worsening already high air pollution levels.

"The residents pay for that cost while the bus company keeps the profits," he said.

As residents and merchants complain, the city has few tools to regulate the buses and keep them from clogging the already congested area.

A New Phenomenon

Down through lower Canal and Allen Streets, passengers assemble on sidewalks on nearly every block. It was not always this way. The phenomenon of Chinatown buses goes back only to 2001, when according to its website, Fung Wah began a van shuttle service for restaurant and other low-wage Chinatown workers in Manhattan and Queens. Over the years, the company added service to Providence and Boston, employing large coach-style diesel buses to meet the growing demand.

As budget travelers from all over the East Coast caught on to the low cost and convenience afforded by the buses, other companies sprang up. Bus routes now range as far south as Atlanta and as far north as Portland, Maine. The main hub continues to be Manhattan's Chinatown. But many say the business has expanded faster than Chinatown's capacity to handle.

Congestion and Air Pollution

A recent visit to the corner of Allen and Hester streets found 60-passenger interstate buses taking up four metered parking spots while loading and unloading for periods of 15 minutes and more. Others pulled into Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus stops or stopped to unload in an active traffic lane, creating congestion on the narrow, crowded roads.

Every time a bus idles or circles the block it burns diesel fuel that releases dust, smoke and fine particles into the air. The federal Environmental Protection Agency classifies these particles -- known as PM2.5 -- as harmful pollutants because they are small enough to inhale directly into the human lungs, causing respiratory problems and long-term side effects.

The federal agency found that particulate pollution has long been the leading factor in air pollution in New York City, with smog, or ground-level ozone, a distant second. In 2008, fine particulate matter was the main pollutant in Manhattan on 251 of the 336 days when air quality was tracked, according to the EPA Air Quality Index.

In Chinatown, the site of heavy truck and bus traffic moving over three bridges, some of those particles likely come from diesel emissions. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Chinatown has one of the highest rates of fine particulate matter concentration in the five boroughs.

Continuing Health Problems

Asthma, often linked to particulate pollution, is a major health problem in Chinatown. According to the 2007 Community Health Survey conducted by the city, 6.4 percent of respondents in lower Manhattan reported having asthma attack or episode during the year, the second highest rate in Manhattan (after Central Harlem).

These numbers don't surprise Mae Lee, the executive director of the Chinatown Progressive Association, a non-profit agency providing free services and promoting health justice for immigrants. Residents are so concerned, she said, that the association is now gearing up to conduct its second community-wide asthma survey. The first survey, made in 2002, found that one in five households reported a family member with asthma symptoms.

Jennifer Long, a volunteer spearheading the new survey, hopes it will help draw attention to traffic congestion on Chinatown streets. "There will be a section on idling buses" she said, "and in this survey, there will be a link to diesel pollution."

The effects of diesel exhaust on human health are multi-faceted, said Stephen Markowitz, an epidemiologist and professor of occupational medicine at Queens College's Department of Earth and Environmental Science. "Diesel exhaust … does cause cancer, and in the shorter term it is associated with asthma and other respiratory diseases," he said. Moving buses, he continued, pose less of a threat to human health than idling buses, because idling buses "produce higher concentrations" of fine diesel particulates. "It's preposterous that buses should be sitting there idling." he said.

A Regulatory Maze

Requiring ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and particle filters on engines -- restrictions already in place in New York City for some vehicles -- might help alleviate the worst effects of diesel pollution.

A 2005 report by the non-profit law and science group Clean Air Task Force found that these technologies can reduce toxic diesel particles released into the atmosphere "by up to 90 percent." But the group said existing federal clean diesel regulations only extend to engines manufactured after 2007. This leaves out diesel vehicles already on the road, which includes interstate Chinatown buses.

All interstate buses larger than 10,000 pounds and carrying more than nine passengers are required to obtain operating permits from the federal government. But national Clean Air guidelines are enforced by individual states.

Joe Ionnati of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said that the city and state have passed laws regulating diesel engines, but that the laws do not apply to the private interstate buses.

Ionnati said the ambiguous status of interstate buses also creates problems for state emissions enforcement. All heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses registered in New York must submit to yearly emissions and safety tests. But many Chinatown buses, subcontracted from various carriers, are not registered in New York.

Ionnati said the best enforcement tool city environmental officers have is the power to do out on-the-spot roadside emissions inspections that carry a fine of $700 or more per offense. "If it’s 8,500 pounds in weight and it's diesel, it can be pulled over." Ionnati said. "If you had a truck or a bus coming from Canada and it's smoking, it can be pulled over." He was not sure, though, how widely these inspections have been used in New York City.

The city and state environmental conservation department used roadside inspections to target heavy trucks and buses in East Harlem during a crackdown on visible exhaust in 2007.

But both Long and Lee of the Chinatown Progressive Association said these tactics would encounter obstacles in crowded Chinatown. "You have to make the public want it," said Lee, "especially since these buses are extremely popular." More enforcement would have to go hand in hand with what she termed "a solution that's culturally acceptable to the community."

To limit pollution, the city does bar engines from idling for more than three minutes. Leo Lee, a manager at Apex/Universe Bus, said his buses are routinely targeted by police for illegal idling while unloading passengers at the company's 13 Allen Street terminal, even though the company provides an indoor waiting room for riders. "If any police go by they give us a ticket," Lee said. "If the driver doesn't speak English, you get an extra ticket."

The Problem of Space

Rising demand and tough competition force operators to load customers where they can. On a recent day, Fung Wah's front curb on Canal Street was lined with steel police barriers as a result of police department efforts to keep Manhattan Bridge traffic routes clear. Undaunted, the Fung Wah buses simply pulled around the corner to the Bowery and loaded customers at the first available space past the barriers.

Some businesses around the stops complain about buses and crowds of riders that block their storefronts.

"Business is very slow and people cannot park sometimes because of the buses," said an attendant at a wall and floor-covering store who asked to remain unnamed.

Many residents and businesses would like to see the city regulate more closely where buses can load and unload. But with so many buses using the same small area of Chinatown -- up to 291 arrivals and departures a day, according to 2009 study conducted by the Department of City Planning -- there simply is not enough curb space to meet the demand.

At the same time, there is a maze of conflicting regulations. City law dictates that operators who use spaces not specifically designated for bus loading are breaking the law and can be ticketed. A signed and designated bus layover stop did exist until recently at 88 East Broadway, but the police department put up barricades and closed it down.

In 2007, the mayor's Community Affairs Unit attempted to find new spaces to relocate the buses, the study said, but "none of the recommended sites have proven to be feasible." Private bus companies may use city bus stops to quickly unload passengers, but it is "illegal to wait, layover or park in a bus stop," and many Chinatown bus operators have abused their privilege, the study notes.

The planning department concluded that unless a permanent solution can be found, bus operators will be forced to continue negotiating on a daily basis with the local police to find temporary curbside space to load and unload.

Lee said that his company has repeatedly applied to the city Department of Transportation for a permanent loading space and received no response. "We're trying to make it convenient for the people of Chinatown to get places. I just don't understand why we don’t get a space to load customers." he said.

Managers for Fung Wah and Lucky Star, two of the most established bus companies in Chinatown, told the same story: repeated requests for loading space and no answer from the city.

Transportation department spokeswoman Suchi Sanagavarapu said the department "can allocate a permit right now" on an individual company basis. But there is no overall system in place to determine who gets permits, and with so many companies applying, no way to make everyone happy.

That is why, said Colleen Chattergoon, another transportation department spokeswoman. the department "has been deferring to the community boards and referring all requests to them."

Similar problems tie the community board's hands, said Community Board 3 transportation and safety chair David Crane. Without criteria for determining which companies deserve a piece of Chinatown’s limited curb space, he said, the board's now simply denies all requests.

Lucky Star desk agent Ken Huang said he doubts the city will ever be able to find a solution." There are a lot of bus companies in Chinatown and I don't think they can give everyone a space," he said. Further he does not see signs that the city is trying. "I don't think they really approve of us," Huang said.

Solutions to the Gridlock

The city, though, does seem to be getting more involved. In response to rising resident complaints, several city agencies, including the city transportation department, are conducting studies to find solutions to the problems created by congestion and unregulated curbside loading.

In its study, the Department of City Planning recommended the transportation department auction off curb space. At a Community Board 3's transportation and safety committee meeting in March, Crane called such a plan "doable" and told the board that it would "solve a lot of problems." Now, Crane said, some bus companies change their corporate names in order to avoid burdensome federal safety. This, Crane said, wouldn’t happen if companies were tied to a city-enforced permit.

A new permitting scheme would need to clear several hurdles, though, including approval the state legislature in Albany.

Meanwhile, some bus companies continue to petition for their own spaces. At the March community board meeting, Double Happiness Travel appealed for two passenger pick-up and drop-off locations on Pike Street. The board rejected the request unanimously.

"There’s no way for us to do this fairly," Crane told the company's Teddy Gonzales. "You're the fourth company in a year to petition for these spaces." When Gonzales expressed frustration, District Manager Susan Stetzer urged him to keep lobbying city and state officials to take action on the planning department's recommendations.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron, whose district includes part of Chinatown, has started to looking into drafting a law, said community liaison Rosemary Diaz, but with plenty of other issues taking up Albany’s time right now, the process may go forward slowly. Diaz said more bus regulation is needed. "They're contributing to an area with one of the highest asthma rates in the city," she said.

This article was written under a partnership between Gotham Gazette and the Baruch College's Department of Journalism and Writing Professions.

City Garbage Plan Falls Short of Goals

Photo (cc) 2008 rafael rybczynski

The Bloomberg administration's garbage plan has been sitting on a shelf awaiting full implementation for four years, and some critics think it's on the verge of spoiling.

After extensive political wrangling, the administration and the City Council in 2006 agreed on a solid waste management plan, which shuffled the location of solid waste stations and relied on trains and barges for moving trash instead of diesel-spewing trucks. Though it was hailed as a major step forward for environmental justice at the time, four years later many of the plan's fundamental proposals have been held up due to permitting delays and lawsuits.

Eight rounds of budget cuts have devastated the Department of Sanitation's public outreach and education funds. The city hasn't even come close to meeting its recycling goals, which were supposed to be accomplished in 2007. And now we're sending more of our garbage to out of state landfills at a cost that has increased by 51.4 percent between 2000 and 2010.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the Bloomberg administration announced it would incorporate its solid waste management plan in its long-term sustainability vision — PlaNYC 2030. Environmentalists and garbage experts now say it's time to take another look at how the city handles the millions of tons of trash New Yorkers dispose of every year. Some of them argue we should throw out the city's original solid waste plan altogether.

A Garbage Plan

Following the closure of Fresh Kills in 2001, the city piled tons of dirty diapers, day-old take out and spoiled vegetables on to diesel trucks. Those trucks traveled to transfer stations in a handful of impoverished city neighborhoods and then sputtered to out of state landfills. The city's waste management plan was supposed to provide relief for those neighborhoods — particularly the South Bronx and central Brooklyn — which were saddled with most, if not all, of the city's garbage burden.

The plan put transfer stations for both refuse and recyclable materials in more affluent neighborhoods, including the West Village and the Upper East Side.

But since the plan's approval, two of the seven proposed city-owned stations have received the necessary state permits and are under construction, according to the Department of Sanitation. Only one is fully operational. According to the original plan, four of these proposed transfer stations should have been completed by 2010. Now, several won't be done until at least 2013.

Caught in the Courts

The state's permit process gets some of the blame for the delays. In addition, lengthy court and political battles have stalled transfer stations in affluent areas of Manhattan. As a result, the vast majority of the city's trash is still being trucked around the five boroughs and is still festering in low-income neighborhoods.

"The process has been slow, but not as a result, in this instance, of delays at the city," said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There was hope that it wouldn’t take a full decade to really advance the barge and rail transportation ... It does seem now to be heading in the right direction."

But not everywhere, according to environmentalists. One area slated for a transfer station is still trash collection-free. In the Upper East Side, the Gracie Point Community Council has filed a second lawsuit against the city to try to quash a marine transfer station slated for 91st Street across from the FDR Drive.

Standing at the corner of 91st Street and York Avenue in Manhattan, just one block down from the proposed site, Tony Ard, the chair of the Gracie Point Community Council, said the city had not reasonably considered how a transfer station would affect the community and its environment — from trucks congesting tiny side streets to the health of its residents. He pointed to the athletic fields next to the transfer station's proposed driveway, where kids from nearby schools play, and to the Upper East Side's air quality — the worst in the city, according to new data from the health department.

"We're not saying choose minority residential neighborhoods," said Ard. "It doesn't belong in any residential neighborhood."

Ard expects a decision from the Supreme Court in Albany any day now. If it doesn't come down in the community's favor, he said, this isn't over.

"We're going to keep at this until we have no more courts available to us and no more legislatures," said Ard. "Why? Because it's wrong."

Ard in front of the old waste transfer station.

A spokesperson from the Department of Sanitation said the city carefully considered the public health and welfare when selecting transfer station sites, and the city has proved that the station is reasonable and necessary at 91st Street.

Other parts of the city's solid waste plan have moved forward. Twenty-year contracts have been either negotiated or are in effect with Waste Management of New York to export trash from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. The sanitation department is currently negotiating with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a long-term contract to take the vast majority of Manhattan's refuse to a waste-to-energy plant in New Jersey.

At the time of the solid waste management plan's approval, the administration argued long-term contracts would save the city money, and it would get the city's trash off of dirty diesel trucks. Almost 90 percent of city trash, the mayor promised, would be sent by rail or barge instead.

According to the Department of Sanitation, the cost of exporting the city's trash has increased per ton from $61.30 in 2000 to $92.80 in 2010 — a 20 percent increase over the rate of inflation. As of April, 33 percent of the city's trash has been unloaded from trucks and put on rail cars — an increase from 14 percent in 2006, according to the solid waste plan.

None of the city's waste is currently exported by barge, according to the Department of Sanitation, because those transfer stations have not been completed.

Dismal Recycling Rates

Politics may have held up parts of the city's garbage plan, but ordinary New Yorkers bear some of the responsibility for the city's failure to meet its recycling goals.

By 2007, according to the solid waste management plan, the city was supposed reach a 25 percent recycling rate for residences and a total rate citywide of 35 percent. According to the Mayor's Office of Operations, only 15.9 percent of trash was diverted from the residential waste stream for recycling so far this fiscal year, and only 24.6 percent of trash was recycled citywide.

Bottom line, New Yorkers aren't recycling like they should be.

"It’s a combination of a lot of things and to find out the answers to those things you have to spend a lot of money," said Robert Lange, the city's director of the Bureau of Waste Reduction, Reuse and Recycling, of the city's dismal recycling rate. "We only have two tools at our disposal: One is public education and one is enforcement. Clearly a lot of elected officials are not in favor of enforcement, including the City Council."

The problem is worse in some communities more than others. Public housing facilities have fetid recycling rates, said sanitation officials. If you dropped by Melrose or Port Morris in the Bronx during fiscal year 2009, less than 5 percent of the trash at the curb was set aside for recycling. Ten other neighborhoods, including Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, Harlem and Hunts Point, put between 10 and 5 percent of their trash out for recycling in the same time period, according to the mayor's management report. Those neighborhoods also typically have the lowest median incomes in the city.

The best and worst recycling rates for fiscal year 2009: Red is less than a 5 percent diversion rate, yellow is between 5 and 10 percent and green is higher than 25 percent.

At the start of the Bloomberg administration, the city recycled more than 330,000 tons of metal, glass and plastic. In fiscal year 2009, about 231,000 tons were recycled — a decrease of 30 percent.

Officials in the Bloomberg administration and at the City Council are now turning to more regulation to boost the volume of clear plastic bags on city streets. Last month, Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a package of legislation aimed at increasing the city's recycling rate, including a proposal to expand the types of plastics the city recycles. A bill, which has widespread support among the council, would add rigid plastics, like yogurt cups and take-out containers, to the city's recycling program. Another bill would establish textile-recycling drop off locations throughout the city, and another proposal would start hazardous waste collections for toxic household products. The council is also exploring forcing the city to study the feasibility of a widespread composting program.

The Department of Sanitation has expressed support for the vast majority of the ideas.

While advocates champion the proposals, some say there is still a long haul ahead.

Waste in a New Century

Now that the administration has decided to incorporate its solid waste management into PlaNYC 2030, advocates say the city should rethink the entire waste cycle: from the packaging of products to the 500-mile journey to a landfill down south.

"The revision of PlaNYC and the fact that solid waste is being brought into that plan now provides the opportunity to look at these issues of ultimate disposal and land filling and waste reduction," said Andy Darrell, the New York regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Start with a carrot: use the city's buying power to curtail the amount of packaging of certain products, said environmental advocates. Concentrate on recycling construction materials, others add. (During his address in Times Square on Earth Day the mayor said the city would look into waste reduction.)

Other refuse experts are willing to use a stick instead.

"We need to work through the system step by step," said Benjamin Miller, an author and former director of policy planning for the Department of Sanitation. "We should prevent as much waste as we can. The single most effective system to do that is to charge people for the waste they send out."

Once the city's waste has been reduced, advocates say the administration should consider its far larger challenge: exporting trash.

A majority of Manhattan's trash goes to an incinerator in Newark, but the rest of our refuse is sent to quickly filling landfills out of state — in the far reaches of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina. Set aside the environmental hazard of landfills for now, advocates say. Consider this: As these garbage pits fill up, it costs more for New York City to reserve space for its trash — hence the 20 percent increase over inflation in the cost of exporting refuse.

A solution, Miller argues, would be for the city to explore another waste to energy facility in the metropolitan area. Once extremely controversial, this technology, some environmental advocates say, has caught up with the industry, and now incinerators that burn trash and convert it to usable energy are much cleaner than they used to be. The idea is not palatable to all of the city's environmentalists, like Goldstein. And it too would come with a hefty price tag.

Clean solid waste management may be a foreign concept to some. But ultimately, experts say our trash piles need to go somewhere, and Southern hospitality won’t last forever.

"There aren’t many good things you can do with garbage at the end of the day," said Darrell. "We're a city of between 8 and 9 million people. We generate a lot of trash."

Cleaning New York's Soot-Spewing Buildings

Photo (cc) 2010 Shellysblogger
Some of New York's most prominent buildings, such as the Dakota on Central Park West, burn highly polluting heating oil.

The American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report released last week concludes that, while New York's air quality has improved, the city once again failed to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health-based standard for fine particulate matter (or "soot") pollution.

Particulate pollution is a one-stop shop for many health impacts. Studies show that it is linked with increased asthma emergencies, bronchitis, lower birth weights, heart disease and tens of thousands of premature deaths every year across the nation. And, it poses a particular threat to children, the elderly and anybody with heart or lung ailments. Millions of New Yorkers live in communities with some of the highest asthma levels in the nation.

Unlike many other regions, in New York, heating oil from buildings is one of the largest sources of local soot pollution. And most of this heating-related soot pollution comes from the roughly 1 percent of the buildings that still use residual fuel oil, alternatively known as No. 4 or No. 6 oil. These grades of heating oil typically contain about 175 times as much sulfur as the diesel fuel used in the city's trucks and buses, along with metals like nickel that worsen heart disease and other ailments.

Dirty Buildings

Heating oil contributes 14 percent of all local particulate soot -- more than all of the city’s cars, trucks and buses, according to The Bottom of the Barrel, the Environmental Defense Fund's December 2009 report about the heating oil problem in New York City. The report found that the roughly 9,000 buildings that still burn residual fuel oil contribute 86 percent of the city's heating oil-related soot pollution and are major contributors to airborne nickel levels that are nine times higher than the average levels of other U.S. cities.

Unlike the diesel pollution that plagues low-income communities and communities of color that house bus depots, marine terminals, and busy truck corridors, the heating oil problem is not confined to the city's poorest communities. The plume of black smoke from some of the city’s most recognizable addresses, including the Dakota and the San Remo on Central Park West, is a telltale sign of No. 6 being burned in the basement.

Citywide, roughly 5,500 large boilers burn approximately 227 million gallons of No. 6 oil annually. An additional 3,500 large boilers burn about 84 million gallons of cleaner No. 4 oil, which is typically a 50/50 mix of No. 2 and No. 6 oils. In contrast, city buildings burn about 700 million gallon of the cleanest No. 2 oil each year.

Converting to Cleaner Oil

Luckily, heating oil pollution is a solvable problem. In his State of the City address in January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signaled that solving it would be a top priority for the year. Ever since, the city, environmental stakeholders and heating oil industry leaders have been working to design a plan. Any comprehensive solution will require Albany and City Hall steps.

While some aspects still must be worked out, the broad outlines of the solution are clear.

First, the state needs to cap the sulfur level of No. 2 heating oil at the same level as the clean, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel now used in all trucks and buses. Just as removing sulfur was the first step toward reducing diesel pollution from trucks and buses, reducing sulfur levels in heating oil is a necessary first step toward solving the heating oil pollution problem.

Putting this sulfur cap on No. 2 heating oil would eliminate more than 1,000 tons of particulate soot pollution each year and would be comparable to shutting down two and a half coal plants in New York state. The Assembly has passed a version of a bill to do this, but the Senate has refused to move forward on a similar bill, proposed by Sen. Bill Perkins, which would require that cap go into effect in 2012.

Industry groups are split on the bill -- the Oil Heat Association of New York and the Empire State Petroleum Association, for example, strongly support the cleanup of this fuel. With cleaner, cheaper natural gas acquiring an increased share of the heating market, the oil industry needs a cleaner form of heating oil to keep its environmentally aware customers. On the other hand, the New York State Business Council opposes the measure, claiming that it will raise heating oil prices in the middle of a recession.

Covering the Costs

Proponents of the bill argue that cleaner heating oil would save money in the long run. In fact, the heating oil industry calculates that ultra-low sulfur heating oil would save consumers up to 6 percent on their heating bills, thanks to increased boiler efficiency, reduced maintenance needs and reduced fuel use. These savings more than offset any price increase from switching to the cleaner fuel. (During 2008 and 2009, ultra-low sulfur diesel cost an average of 1.74 percent more than No. 2 heating oil in New York state.)

The city could take additional steps to reduce heating oil pollution.

For example, the Department of Environmental Protection could adopt regulations that eliminate the use of No. 6 oil altogether. This would eliminate more than 500 tons of particulate soot in the city in the first year, as buildings with older burners switched to the No. 4 oil and more than 800 tons if the Perkins bill becomes law. Such a step could be accomplished quickly because it would not require any major capital investments, although buildings would have to do some extra maintenance to get ready, such as testing their burners to ensure that they wouldn’t leak when they switch to a lighter grade of oil.

One Burner, Two Fuels

Taking this step would buy time to finish a citywide conversion to dual-fuel burners that can use either natural gas or No. 2 oil. This conversion is critical to the long-term resolution of the heating oil pollution problem and to putting the city's buildings on an environmentally sustainable path for heating.

The conversion to dual-fuel systems that burn either No. 2 oil or natural gas is likely to be the trickiest component of any comprehensive city plan to solve the heating oil problem. Today’s existing equipment can last for decades so many building owners have been reluctant to replace boilers and burners that still work.

As the city and state move toward finalizing their plans to clean up the pollution from heating oil, a number of issues will need to be resolved. These include questions about the timetable for the phase-in of dual-fuel systems and phase-out of older equipment, whether buildings that already have dual-fuel systems will be able to use No. 4 oil as a backup fuel, and what incentives the city and state should offer to help buildings convert their equipment and fuels. Policy makers will also have to determine how to monitor and enforce a program that covers all of the roughly 800,000 buildings in the city.

The bottom line is that heating oil pollution poses a serious problem in New York City, but the outlines of a long-term solution are becoming clear. With the right steps in Albany and City Hall, the plume of black smoke rising from many of the city’s largest buildings, within a few years, could become a thing of the past.

Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he focuses on urban air pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization; is on the board of the New York League of Conservation Votes and blogs on a variety of environmental issues on the NRDC Switchboard.

PlaNYC at Three: Time to Include the Neighborhoods

electric car
Mayor Michael Bloomberg presenting his plan for a larger and more environmentally friendly New York in April 2007.

Earth Day -- April 22 -- will mark the third anniversary of PlaNYC2030, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's self-proclaimed "long-term sustainability plan." While the city has taken many steps toward the plan's goal of "a greener greater New York," particularly in energy conservation, one gaping hole remains in the plan.

PlaNYC2030 left out any role for the city's hundreds of neighborhoods, 59 community boards, and the countless civic, community and environmental groups that care about the future of the city. It was a top-down plan, conceived at City Hall with minimal input, and it was never approved as an official plan. In the long term this will only undermine the ability to sustain the plan itself, and both implement and improve it.

The plan now stands at a critical juncture, Rohit Aggarwala, director of the Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, recently announced his resignation, and the city's budget situation and the overall economic situation have delayed and even derailed some of its initiatives. With Aggarwala's departure and the convening of a commission to review the City Charter, now is the time to fill the gap that excluded neighborhoods. An updated PlaNYC2030 could then be reviewed and voted on by community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission, and City Council, as required in the City Charter.

Gaps in the Planning Process

The problem started in 2007, and it started at the top. You would think that such a daunting task as planning for a city of 8 million people and projecting our priorities over a period of more than two decades would be really difficult and take a long time. Yet it was all done in the time it takes to approve the average rezoning, about seven months.

The mayor's consultants, who completed the plan in record time, never went through any of the steps, outlined in the City Charter, the city’s constitution, that plans must take in order to be approved.

Under Section 197-a of the City Charter, plans should be reviewed and voted on by the affected community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. At each step there must be a public hearing. None of this happened.

One can surely argue that this could be a long and tedious process because the 197-a plan approval process does not have a time limit like the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which is used for zoning and other major city actions and generally takes some seven months. However, the delays in approving plans in the past have largely been the result of action (and inaction) by the city’s planning department, an agency the mayor controls. In the two decades since the 1989 charter revision made it easier to submit plans under Section 197-a, only a handful have been approved and almost all of them were initiated not by the city but by community boards, despite a lack of funding and technical support.

Since PlaNYC was never officially approved, it remains an initiative of the mayor, owned and operated by City Hall. Generally, the Department of City Planning is responsible for planning and engaging other branches of government.

The department, however, played a minor role in preparing the 2030 plan, and long-term plans of any kind have been notably absent from City Planning’s portfolio. Instead, the agency touts as one of its top achievements the 100 rezonings it approved in the last eight years.

While the rezonings have opened up opportunities for new development -- also a major goal of PlaNYC2030 -- and protected many other areas, they hardly pass muster as "plans." Rezoning for new development is often done without planning for new schools, transit and other services, nor does it entail measures to deal with existing service deficits or the myriad problems that face communities. In some neighborhoods that have undergone massive rezoning, such as Williamsburg, residents are now up in arms because new high-rise luxury development has overtaxed the capacity of local schools and transit.

While City Planning often echoes PlaNYC's call for "transit-oriented development" by promoting higher density development around subway stops, it does not insure that transit capacity will grow to meet increased needs. Trains and buses are even more overcrowded than they were before the rezoning, and with more service cutbacks planned, the situation promises to get worse. If that's planning it's surely not good planning.

Creating the Plan

Fortunately the 2030 plan looks more like a long-term plan for the city than the 100 piecemeal rezonings, even if they both favor growth over community improvements. But it's still the mayor's plan and not the city's plan and could easily change or disappear under the next mayor. Even though the City Council approved the creation of a permanent office of long-term sustainability, there is no guarantee it will always be adequately funded.

If we look at how the plan came about, we begin to see the problem. PlaNYC was the product of a small group in the Mayor's Office of Operations.

The bulk of the work was done by McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, under contract with the city's Economic Development Corp.

The EDC itself is a non-profit wholly owned by the city. It functions as the mayor's proxy in negotiating deals with developers and undergoes minimal oversight. The McKinsey report was not made public -– I received a copy by filing a Freedom of Information request. It appears to have been the core of the PlaNYC, apparently embellished after consultation with specific agencies that have offered their ideas, such as the million trees, and public plaza initiatives. All of the proposals fit into the plan’s giant spreadsheet, a perfect instrument for CEOs and the budget office but not something that most New Yorkers have a chance to work with.

The Missing Pieces

Once the mayor’s office came up with goals and selected projects to put in the long-term plan, the administration held consultations throughout the city and solicited feedback. Despite this, there was no public involvement in making the final decisions about priorities and programs. I must confess that I sat through some of these meetings and focus groups and felt ashamed that the many committed and bright community representatives in the room were treated like subjects in a marketing experiment and not partners in an important civic discussion.

Even if PlaNYC was bottled up in the city's executive offices, it still could have turned out to be a great plan. But because the process was rushed and top-down, many opportunities were missed.

For example, the plan could have penetrated much deeper into the problems of sustainability as they affect all New Yorkers where they live and work. In the end, after weeding through the 127 projects in the plan's matrix, it seems energy efficiency received the highest priority. A review of 2009 mayoral press releases about the 2030 plan by Brian Paul, a fellow at the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development, found that two thirds deal with energy efficiency, climate change and efficient transportation.

This is not to say energy or efficiency shouldn’t be top priorities, only that they are closely related in a holistic way to the way we live in our neighborhoods. Without the engagement of neighborhoods, businesses and residents, progress on this front will be slow. The mayor's failed effort at congestion pricing provides dramatic evidence of this. And then there are serious issues of social equity, barely touched upon the 2030 plan.

The problem of sustaining and implementing the plan goes back again to the problem of the planning process. McKinsey’s background in management consulting led it to emphasize issues of efficiency -– particularly with energy. This is clearly the most elaborate element in the long-term plan and, not surprisingly, the area in which the greatest progress seems to have been made in the last three years. The city has purchased hybrid vehicles and passed rules encouraging owners to make their buildings more energy efficient, among other efforts.

But many of the gains, like reducing the wasteful use of city-owned vehicles and reducing traffic in Midtown, could have been done without a plan. At the same time, much less has been done to encourage grassroots efforts in energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy sources. PlaNYC does not include any community-based plans and initiatives to address problems of environmental quality and public health, housing, transportation, and open space. In fact, the 100 community-based plans in the city, most of them ignored and never adopted by the city’s planners, were not even taken into account for PlaNYC.

New Yorkers are most familiar with the neighborhoods where they live and work. In this sense they are specialists, and neighborhood leaders and activists are usually a great source of knowledge. Surely they can be parochial and narrow-minded, but so too can people in government agencies. PlaNYC did not look at the city from the perspective of its hundreds of neighborhoods or incorporate the vast experiences and histories of its neighborhoods. Only after the giant spreadsheet was made were the citywide programs and projects broken down, but mostly for reporting purposes.

The city’s 59 community boards, now struggling to salvage their limited role in decision making, are still invisible in the 2030 plan, barely mentioned in the scores of spreadsheets, maps and colorful images that herald the coming of the green city. They can post comments but play no role in setting priorities or initiating change. They are not consulted until after the fact, yet they are often criticized for only reacting. Civic and advocacy groups, including many that started fighting for a greener and greater future decades ago, and advocated sustainability long before the term was uttered in City Hall, are similarly sidelined.

This is a unique and important time. A fresh approach to long-term sustainability planning at the top could lead to a true partnership between neighborhoods and City Hall. The New York City Charter already provides the framework, and that can be strengthened to insure that all planning is open, transparent and accessible to all, and that the plan belongs to everyone. And that, in turn, will help assure that the plan survives to guide New York to a truly sustainable future.

Tom Angotti is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development and author of "New York For Sale" (MIT Press, 2008).

Will Electric Cars Give New York a Charge?

electric car
This Tesla is one of a number of electric cars coming on the market.

Imagine it is 2013 in New York City. Many things in your life haven't changed since 2010 but one thing certainly has: You won’t need to buy gas in order to drive. Instead, while you recharge your battery after a long day at work, your new electric car could be recharging as well.

Late this year, a new wave of electric vehicles will begin to arrive on the U.S. market. The Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf will lead the way, with other manufacturers including Ford, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Tesla planning to introduce their electric cars sometime between 2011 and 2012.

Last week, the Obama administration announced new fuel economy standards for automobiles that provide some incentives for electric cars.

The policy, intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption, is geared to a nation where most people rely on cars for transportation. But do electric cars make sense in New York City, where streets are snarled with traffic and many people park on the streets rather than in their own driveways? Would these vehicles truly help to lower carbon emissions? Should the city encourage their use?

The Bloomberg administration sees electric cars as part of its overall move to create a more environmentally sustainable New York. Others, however, think the city should focus more on getting people out of cars altogether.

Electric Options

Potential demand for electric cars in New York City is strong enough that consumers will likely buy up all available supply for the next several years, according to a PlaNYC study, released in January, that explored potential demand and environmental benefits for electric vehicles in the city.

Consumers here and elsewhere soon will be able to choose between two types of electric vehicles: the plug-in hybrid and the all-electric car. Plug-in hybrids run on an electrical charge for about 40 miles before switching to gas power. The new plug-in-hybrids, like the upcoming Chevy Volt, contain the same technology as the hybrids on the market today but have larger battery packs and get about twice the fuel economy of a conventional hybrid.

All-electric cars, like the upcoming Nissan Leaf, have a range of about 100 miles and are powered by electric motors instead of the gas-powered internal combustion engine found in most current cars. They rely on a battery charged from a standard 120 volt or 240 volt outlet and do not produce carbon emissions while running but require frequent charging.

Better Cars …

PlaNYC2030, New York's "comprehensive sustainability plan" to reduce the city's overall greenhouse gas emissions includes electric cars as part of its strategy. In 2008, transportation accounted for 22 percent of all city carbon emissions. Passenger vehicles and light trucks were responsible for 74 percent of these transportation emissions that, as part of the overall PlaNYC effort, "would be reduced by 44 percent by 2030."

To accomplish this, the plan calls for improving public transit, getting cars off the road and making sure the vehicles that remain are more fuel-efficient. According to a previous PlaNYC study, car trips produce five times more carbon emissions than a trip on mass transit. Electric cars, though, could "provide a significant reduction in fuel usage, greenhouse gas emissions, noise, and local air pollution compared to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles,” according to the electric vehicle study.

Significant reductions in carbon emissions, though, would require a large-scale shift to these new cars. If by 2015, 2.5 percent of all cars in New York City are electric, which the PlaNYC study suggests is possible, the city's carbon emissions would be reduced by approximately 170,000 metric tons per year from 2008 levels. That represents only 1.43 percent of the city's 11.8 million metric tons of transportation emissions in 2008. The city's overall emissions that year totaled 53.3 million metric tons, according to a previous PlaNYC study.

On the national level, the Obama administration has set the goalof 1 million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015 and has provided $2.4 billion in stimulus grants to the industry. The federal government also offers buyers a tax credit of up to $7,500 per electric vehicle.

… Or No Cars?

Although electric vehicles might help to ease carbon emissions, congestion and deaths and injuries from vehicles will still persist, said Transportation Alternative's communications director Wiley Norvell. "If we're looking at what's going to solve all of these problems, we have some silver bullets out there: movement to transit, walking, and biking. Electric vehicles aren't a silver bullet," he said.

Instead, he said, the city needs to look at alternatives to cars. "Our streets have been all car, all the time and for us, the New York of the future is not slightly more efficient cars all the time, it's a better balance with more cycling, more on street space dedicated to moving public transportation, and making our walking environments safe," Norvell said.

According to Norvell, millions of Americans are reevaluating their decision to own and drive cars, creating an opportunity for changes in transportation. "If we come out of this window with a handful of half-measures I think a lot of us will see it as a missed opportunity," he said. "We can see a role for more efficient vehicles in a New York City with vastly diminished automobile use."

Robert Paaswell, director emeritus of the University Transportation Research Center and interim president of City College sees a place for electric cars, but his main concern is mass transit. To boost that, he would increase taxes on gasoline and put tolls on expressways and the East River bridges. "Nobody is willing to go after it but gasoline should be taxed another dollar a gallon," he said."

On Volt and Leaf

The PlaNYC study, conducted by McKinsey & Company, surveyed New Yorkers about their driving behavior and their attitudes toward electric cars. It found that 21 percent of city residents are considered potential early adopters, people looking to buy an electric vehicle as soon as they become available for purchase. Partly due to limited supply of electric cars, it found, these early buyers "will likely outstrip the available supply of electric vehicles to the New York market for at least the next five years."

Electric car owners must have a parking space with access to an electrical outlet charge their cars. The early adopters indicated they would for a charging station even without tax incentives and do not see the need for a large public charging network throughout the city.

The Nissan Leaf will have a price of $32,780, and the Chevrolet Volt is expected to cost around $40,000, both without the $7,500 federal tax credit.

The New York study anticipates that by 2015, electric vehicle prices should decline because of reduced battery costs, that there will be a sufficient supply of electric vehicles to purchase, and that consumers will take advantage of the existing federal tax credit of $7,500 for new electric cars. The number of electric cars bought, according to the study, "may be significantly less if these assumptions do not materialize."

Paaswell believes there is a "huge market" for electric vehicles that needs to be supported and developed with incentives such as preferred parking spots. While the first buyers will be "environmental people or people who want to be cool," eventually, Paaswell said, the eventual market "will be the everyday user who buys cars for price competitive reasons for their families or for their businesses."

"As the demand goes up, the technology is going to change rapidly," Paaswell said. "The example I always like to give is when cell phones came out, they were these suitcases people carried around, and now you carry a mini-thing in your pocket. The technology will take care of itself when the demand is there and the monetary reward is there."

But Paaswell also believes that electric cars won't take off unless new taxes make conventional vehicles more expensive and the city takes steps to encourage other electric vehicles, such as trucks. "If the city requires all delivery vehicles to be electric and begins to put in charging stations, that will make it easier for people to buy cars," he said.

Paying at the Pump

Car manufacturers and the PlaNYC study count on consumers paying a higher price for an electric car to save money on fuel in the long run. "If gas prices increase, the savings from using electric cars will be higher," the report said.

Electricity prices go up as well -- Con Ed announced another increase last month -- but not as rapidly as gas prices, according to the report. As a result, it concludes, "The day-to-day cost of driving an electric vehicle in New York, including electricity and maintenance, will be 40 percent to 70 percent less than a gasoline vehicle costs to operate" meaning that "electric vehicles offer the potential to save drivers significant sums of money over time."

The study does not see the need for the city to create a public network for charging electric cars. "The market will be saturated with early adopters so in the long term, that's something to be looked at but in the short term, the study found it wouldn't be necessary," said Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The report did, however, recommend other possible steps for the city and stakeholders to take to encourage electric vehicle adoption. These include discounts on garage parking spaces with charging infrastructure, a free unlimited MetroCard for one year, and street trees being planted in the name of the first 5,000 New Yorkers who buy an electric vehicle.

As part of its sustainability strategy, the Bloomberg administration has purchased some hybrid police cars. In 2007, the administration announced a plan to replace the city's 13,000 taxis with conventional hybrid cars by 2012. That, however, has been blocked by the courts.

On the Grid

The study also considered how much strain electrical vehicles might put on the city’s electrical grid. It concluded that if the number of electric vehicles reaches about 50,000 vehicles by 2015," it would not have an impact on the grid," according to Post.

If the number of vehicles exceeded 200,000, the city could reduce their effect by allowing charging stations to work only when demand for power is low, such as overnight. This is known as smart charging.

Power plants that produce the electricity for the cars have their own emissions, though the exact amount varies widely. The Obama administration recognized that power plants produce carbon dioxide emissions when it decided to not treat all electric cars as emission free. Under its plan, a manufacturer would receive a credit for 0 grams of carbon dioxide emission only for the first 200,000 electric vehicles it produces by 2016.

In New York, the report found that, if electric vehicles became widespread, emissions at local power plants might increase but emissions from gasoline consumption would be lower, "resulting in a net benefit of lower overall emissions."

How much lower, though depends to a great extent on how that electricity is generated, according to Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association. "Since the electricity is going to have to come from somewhere, you want it to come from clean energy sources whether it be wind or solar and those sorts of things. If the power plants are going to be fueled by coal we're going to be worse off than if we fuel them by gas," said Zupan. "It's a conundrum because ultimately there aren't too many clean energy sources."

Council Increases Penalty for Dumping

Photo (cc) 2007 andyj682

Dumping in any New York City waterway is about to cost more than environmental quality.

It's going to cost money.

The City Council unanimously approved legislation Wednesday that creates a civil penalty dumping in the city's rivers, creeks or canals. Anyone found guilty of dumping in a city waterway could receive a fine between $1,500 and $10,000 for a first violation. Dumping in the city's waters already carries a criminal penalty.

In addition, the council approved legislation to streamline the process of getting green technology in buildings and a bill to formalize the replacement of trees on pubic property.

Increasing Fines for Waterway Dumping

Whether it’s tossing trash along the bank of the East River or abandoning your boat in Jamaica Bay, the city can not now invoke a civil penalty for dumping in waterways. The only civil penalty for waterfront dumping up until now, said Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is if someone throws something into a waterway from a car.

The bill (Intro 54) the council approved Wednesday would make the city's regulations more consistent, said Quinn.

"What we have in the city of New York is a set of waterfront pollution regulations that are unfortunately inconsistent, full of loopholes and not fully enforceable," said Quinn.

In addition to expanding the city's dumping fines, the legislation would give the departments of sanitation and environmental protection the power to enforce the law. Before this bill, the Department of Small Business Services was the only agency that could enforce waterfront penalties.

Greener Building

The council also approved legislation (Intro 77) that establishes an "interagency green team" within the Department of Buildings to assist residents, contractors and developers navigating the city's permitting and regulatory process for green technology projects. The team was first announced in Quinn's State of the City address last month and is charged with streamlining the city's regulations for green building.

It will include representatives from the buildings, environmental protection, transportation, design and construction and health and mental hygiene departments as well as the City Planning Commission.

The bill, which was approved unanimously, also sets up an innovation review board to review projects that employ new technologies and recommend when these technologies should be used by the city.

Both boards hope to elevate New York City's standing in emerging technology market sectors.

Removing Trees

The council also approved legislation (Intro 4 ) that creates a process for removing and replacing trees on public property.

Under the current law, property owners can be fined $100,000 if they remove a tree on public property to, say, make room for a driveway.

Under the legislation, which was approved unanimously, a person who wants to remove a tree from public property would have to get a permit and pay a replacement tree fee based national standards. If the person replace the tree, the Department of Parks and Recreation will reimburse the fee.

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