WE ACT for Environmental Justice hosted its 3rd Clean Heat Council meeting last week on Thursday, January 16, 2014 – in order to strategize ways of encouraging property managers in Harlem to stop burning no. 6 oil.
“WE ACT for Environmental Justice has been in Harlem for the past 25 years… organizing people to get involved in policy that affects their quality of life,”said Clean Heat organizer Milka Rodriguez. “Our mission and focus is to build healthy communities in Northern Manhattan.”
Rodriguez reached out to 182 different buildings throughout the campaign, educating tenants, landlords, and property managers about the dangers of burning no. 6 oil. Through her outreach, she promotes the benefits of converting from dirty fuel to cleaner fuels like No.2 oil, No.4 oil, and natural gas. She also encourages buildings that are struggling financially to make the conversion to apply for financing options and programs available through the city, private lenders, and weatherization companies.
The dangers of burning No.6 oil include asthma, bronchitis, lung damage, cancer, as well as other respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. The effects of burning no.6 oil are especially pronounced in working class communities of color. A study of 700 mothers and their children living in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx showed these neighborhoods have the highest asthma rates in the country, as well as lower birth weights in comparison to other parts of NYC. Babies of mothers exposed to high levels of air pollutions also have smaller head circumferences, which may lead to development delays that result in children who demonstrate disruptive behavior, slow learning abilities, and lower grades in school.
Rodriguez outlined the challenges of dealing with management companies and landlords, many who are either not aware of the benefits of switching to a cleaner heating source, or who simply aren’t interested in being guided through the conversion process.
Regardless of the reasons why property managers are still burning no. 6 oil, the Clean Heat Council discussed the consequences of buildings that refused or delayed to make the changes.
“The time frame we have is that if a building has 3 violations, we go to the Environmental Control Board and ask them to assist us with compliance,” said Michael Gilsen Assistant Commissioner of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Bureau of Environmental Compliance. “We are going to the board to petition that after the first building violation, we’ll issue a ‘Cease and Desist’. Up to every permit that has expired from July 2013, we send inspectors out.”
Once inspectors are sent out, Gilsen continued, the buildings are forced to shut down their boiler. “We believe word will get out to people, letting them know that we have started to shut down boilers. We also believe this will start getting people to convert,” said Michael Gilsenan of the DEP. Later in the discussion, Gilsenan encouraged tenants to speak up against property managers who refused to provide building tenants with healthier living conditions.
“I wanted to mention that if anyone has a problem, call us, and we’ll send people. We’re running into the same (outreach) problems. We’ve also had property managers pay the fines for expired boiler permits and think they’re OK – but they’ll be getting another visit from us.”
The council also discussed holding a forum in order to educate small building owners in Northern Manhattan of how they can save money by switching to a cleaner fuel, as well as other topics such as weatherization options, energy financing, and alternative energy sources for their properties.
“I’ve been in contact with Charlisa Lanzot about organizing a building owner’s forum before Earth Day for the purpose of getting some of these smaller building owners to attend a panel discussion with different stake holders in clean heat and energy efficiency,” said Rodriguez. “The aim of the forum is to educate smaller building owners whose buildings are still on NO. 6 oil about available energy financing and tax credits.”
“Our forums concentrate on the whole picture for building improvement. We also look at other agencies to come in and talk about composting. We also have other organizations that talk about re-purposing. We have groups coming in for those who want a quick solution. So we try to make it a little bit of everything. But we can focus on fuel and conversion if that’s what you’d like to do.
“The forums are set up in a way to try to keep it informal, and tell people what each group participating in the forum can provide. We leave the rest up to the audience. We always leave time at the end for private conversation,” said Charlisa Lanzot. “…Even some communities where people think they aren’t aware of going green, we’ve had a successful turnout. But not a lot of people know about fuel conversion. The big guys know, but not the little guys. We’ve been targeting the little guys because they’re the ones struggling to hold their property.”
“Urban American has many buildings concentrated that need to know because you do have people that are concerned,” said 3333 Broadway Tenant Board association leader Alicia Barksdale. “Property managers don’t want us getting involved, even taking down fliers. So it’s management blocking the tenants. That’s why if we have organizations or the city helping us, then we can do something. “
WE ACT for Environmental Justice is seeking to do just that.