Ms. Barksdale’s windows offer a wide view of the Hudson River, but a sullied one, from the soot and nearby construction dust. So Ms. Barksdale keeps some of her furniture covered and, even on mild days, her windows shut.
“I’m concerned about what he’s breathing in here,” she said one recent morning as she eyed her 11-month-old grandson playing with alphabet blocks.
A few years ago, around 10,000 buildings in New York City were burning the cheapest, heaviest and dirtiest forms of heating oil, known as No. 6 and No. 4. That small percentage of real estate contributed more soot pollution than all the cars and trucks on the streets, the city found, and was a prime contributor to thousands of premature deaths, hospital admissions for lung and respiratory illness, and emergency room visits for asthma each year.
But three years into a four-year plan to phase out No. 6, barely more than half of the buildings that were burning it have switched to cleaner oil. And of those that have stopped using No. 6, hundreds have switched to No. 4, which though permitted for another 16 years, can be only slightly less noxious, depending on the supplier.
Under a 2011 city law, No. 6 will be banned as of July 1, 2015. By 2030, all buildings in the city must use cleaner fuels such as No. 2 oil or natural gas.
“We are not satisfied with the level of turnaround,” said Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WeAct, an environmental group in West Harlem. “There is probably of pool of landlords out there who will probably have to be pulled into this kicking and screaming.”
The expense can be a major obstacle. Converting a boiler to a lighter oil can cost between $5,000 and $17,000, according to several property managers, and in some cases much more, depending on the condition of the burner, tank and oil lines. Switching to natural gas can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The buildings in Ms. Barksdale’s complex are still burning No. 6. Joshua Einsenberg, executive vice president of Urban American Management, which owns the complex, said it had started the work to switch to No. 2 oil in time for next winter.
“It’s a big system,” he said. “It’s just not something you can snap your fingers and get it done overnight.”
Buildings that burn No. 6 after the deadline could face penalties beginning at $560 for the first violation, and the city can take landlords to court to force a conversion.
Heavy heating oils like No. 6 and No. 4 may contain sulfur, nickel and other pollutants, and can be difficult to burn completely. What does not burn becomes soot that spews out of the chimney, clogs parts of the boiler and can lodge in people’s lungs.
Even the partial success in getting rid of No. 6 has helped. Last year the mayor’s office announced that sulfur dioxide levels and soot pollution had dropped and that New York City had experienced its best air quality in more than 50 years.
“By phasing out the use of the dirtiest heating oils and increasing the efficiency of boilers, we will continue to build on the progress that has seen dramatic reductions in air pollution in New York City,” Emily Lloyd, commissioner of the Environmental Protection Department, said in a recent news release.
Engineers have to be hired, permits filed and gas lines extended, making conversion particularly to natural gas a series of long and costly hurdles. Some engineers and contractors who specialize in conversions are now booked up for the next year. Some buildings must get their chimneys relined, which can cost up to $10,000 per floor. “This has stopped a lot of conversions right in their tracks,” said Frank Ricci, director of government affairs at the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group. “It’s so prohibitively expensive.”
Assemblyman Dan Quart, who represents parts of the Upper East Side and Midtown, has called for the state to fund boiler conversions through low-interest loans or tax credits. The city created a $100 million financing program to help building owners, though most have financed their own conversions, officials said, because they recoup their costs through energy savings within a few years. Others, Mr. Corbin-Mark of WeAct said, “see the financial hurdles of initial entrance of the conversion process as too big for them to climb over.”
Another problem is that in some parts of the city, the infrastructure, namely sufficient natural gas supply, does not yet exist. So some landlords who would otherwise switch to gas are choosing No. 4 oil. “So they’re taking this half measure, if you could even consider it a half measure,” Mr. Quart said.
A few dozen buildings have received waivers of the 2015 deadline, most of them because they plan to switch to natural gas but are waiting for the gas supply to be available.
Between 2011 and 2013, Consolidated Edison has switched 1,535 large buildings to natural gas from dirty heating fuels. But its plan to expand its natural gas network is not scheduled to be completed until 2019, said Christine Cummings, a gas conversion manager at the company. “We’re taking infrastructure and building it in a rational way,” she said.
Streets have to be dug up and restored, sometimes down to the cobblestones, which recently derailed a conversion project in Lower Manhattan. The added cost would have been $500,000, said Tal Eyal, executive vice president of FirstService Residential, which manages several hundred apartment buildings, co-ops and condos throughout the city.
When the three-year certificate to burn No. 6 expired for Andrea Kornbluth’s co-op in Washington Heights last year, the board voted to convert to natural gas. But without straight access to a gas main, Ms. Kornbluth said, the owners were “forced” to switch to No. 4, a matter of cleaning the boiler and changing the oil.
“Burning No. 4, it’s not ideal,” she said, “but I guess we have no choice than to stick with it for a while.”
As an engineer, Joe Torres has been converting boilers for more than 25 years. The six-floor walk-up where he and his family live on the second floor still burns the tarlike No. 6. The boiler certificate for the building recently expired.
“Maybe they are cheap,” Mr. Torres, 55, said when asked why his landlord had not converted. “I got to fight with them just to get paint.”
Black soot often coats his apartment windows, he said, and sometimes gets inside. Recently, when his wife wanted to look at a bigger, nicer apartment upstairs that had become available, he told her they were safer away from the chimney.
“The closer to the ground, the better,” Mr. Torres said. “At least we have some protection.”