News | West Harlem

Environmental group pushes for conversion to cleaner boiler oils, better enforcement

  • Shiwen Zhou for Spectator
    OIL WAR | Tenants and landlords gathered at a WE ACT, HPD, and HCDC-organized forum on cleaner boiler oils for buildings Thursday night.

Updated, 4:31 p.m.

As the city continues to implement a plan to end the use of dirty heating oils, members of a West Harlem environmental group said that greater efforts are still needed to combat noncompliance and lack of awareness among building landlords in Harlem.

In 2011, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection issued energy standards that required all buildings to phase out using the heavily polluting No. 6 heating oil before the end of their three-year operational certificate—meaning that all buildings should have converted by 2015. Although the DEP has informed residents of the importance of switching oils, members of West Harlem Environmental Action, also known as WE ACT, said that the lack of awareness among some residents could mean that buildings miss the deadline.

“We know that it’s not just the tenants who need that information—it’s the landlords,” Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director for WE ACT, said. “As the warmer months come, if they haven’t converted from No. 6, DEP is going to come after them.”

Once the operational certificate runs out, DEP will fine landlords for failing to comply. But even then, Milka Rodriguez, a green building organizer for WE ACT, said that buildings may not change.

“The penalties are not large enough, but the DEP has been doing more work in order to give out these violations,” she said. “They’re working on making their enforcement much more strict.”

Pollution from burning No. 6 oil is associated with lower air quality and respiratory diseases. According to DEP guidelines, buildings should be using No. 4 or No. 2 oils—lighter grades that release less harmful particulate matter when burned—by 2015. 

Alicia Barksdale, president of the tenant association at 3333 Broadway, a 1,200-unit apartment complex on 134th Street, said last week that the building’s owners would rather pay the fine than change the oil used—though Shepard said that the owner is in the process of switching.

“It’s sad because I live on the 35th floor, and when there’s black smoke coming out and the wind’s blowing, it’s coming in my direction,” she said. “It’s not the same as the smoke color they tell us it’s supposed to be.”

WE ACT , the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the Harlem Community Development Corporation held a forum for apartment residents and landlords Thursday night to circulate information about services and financing options. Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT, said that most of the attendees were from single-family homes and not the apartment landlords the forum hoped to reach. 

“There’s been very little compliance of small landowners with clean heat,” she said. “The landlords are very difficult to find and it’s very difficult to get their compliance.” 

Rodriguez said that while larger landlords are generally more informed about clean energy options, smaller companies are not as well-educated about the importance of energy conservation, the financing available, or the government agencies that provide the services. She added that larger landlords can also afford to not comply since penalties for using No. 6 oil are low. 

Fahem Abdur-Razzaq, a former boiler mechanic, said that buildings that haven’t switched oils are actually paying more money because of the higher costs associated with the older oil.

“Almost 20 years ago, they were phasing out No. 6 fuel oil,” he said. “You have to preheat the oil in order to use it. ... It takes more energy and more resources and more money to use that oil.” 

Posie Constable, director of clean heat finance at the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation, said at the forum that convincing building owners to convert to cleaner oils—rather than pay fines—has been a challenge. She said that while they have worked with many buildings around the city, buildings in Harlem have largely remained unchanged.

“There’s a lot of buildings here that are in great need,” Constable said. “We’re looking for projects.” 

Still, Corbin-Mark said there have been some successes, like Thursday’s forum.

“It’s slower than we would like, but there has been progress,” he said.

Corbin-Mark said that there is much at stake in the fight for clean heat—not only reducing pollutants that could cause asthma but also mitigating climate change.

“The more we change things like the way we burn fuel, the less we are contributing to the climate crisis,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Peggy Shepard's name as 'Shepherd.' Spectator regrets the error.

deborah.secular@columbiaspectator.com  |  @DeborahSecular

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