Community and City Work to Ensure Clean Air

Written by Dana Agmon. Posted in Volume 37, Issue 7 - December 10, 2016

In December 2001, the Apellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York confirmed the findings of the environmental consulting firm Allee, King, Rosen & Fleming Inc (AKRF) concerning the air quality on Roosevelt Island. The study was conducted back in the 90s due to changes in the General Development Plan (GDP) and pursuant to State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). At the time, Roosevelt Islanders for Responsible Southtown Development (RIRSD) claimed RIOC and Hudson/Related violated the original GDP and failed to comply with SEQRA. Fifteen years later, in 2015, New York City was one of very few cities globally that complied with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality guidelines. Yet Roosevelt Island sits smack in the middle of the City, across from two power stations, leaving many residents to wonder just what effect those billowing smokestacks have on the Island’s air quality.

Power station smokestacks
Winds typically blow smoke from the power station away from the Island.

Island activist Frank Farance, who has been following and participating in the air quality discussions on the Island, says “not much.” Not only does the Vernon Boulevard station burn 97% gas and only 3% kerosene or oil (mostly during summertime), but it sits in an area with prevailing winds from the west, which means any smoke is blown eastward. According to Farance, Con-Ed is not a factor whose impact should worry residents. A bigger concern for Farance are emissions from cars and trucks as well as oil-burning furnaces.

The Air Quality Index

Air quality is measured by the Air Quality Index (AQI), a number scale that measures common air pollutants that affect public health. AQI has five quality levels ranging from Good (0-50) to Hazardous (300-500). The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern to the public. . The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act.


In 2008 the Department of Health and Hygiene developed the New York City Community Air Survey (NYCCAS). In cooperation with Queens College, the program monitored pollution from traffic, buildings and various other sources.

Farance, who has been an Island resident for over 30 years and is the chair of US Metadata Standards committee, said the results show that “boiler burning and residual fuel oil continue to be a major source of air pollution in New York City, especially in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side that have many large buildings.” He added that “the second biggest reason is traffic emissions that contribute to higher pollution in some neighborhoods and near busy roads across the city.”

Specifically, said Farance, “one of the most hazardous of those pollutants is PM2.5.” PM2.5 are fine particles that are small enough to enter our lungs; 17% of PM2.5 comes from traffic, with trucks and busses emitting the majority. 50% comes from an array of building-related uses like cooking, gas usage, construction. Farance says both pertain directly to Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island is located across from the Upper East Side, where a high concentration of residual fuel oil burning furnaces and boilers are used in buildings, as well as next to the FDR and under the Queensboro Bridge that carries approximately 175,000 vehicles per day and is the most heavily utilized of the four East River bridges, according to a 2014 report by the New York City Department of transportation.

Luckily, curbing the ongoing use of boilers and encouraging developers to install more environmentally friendly heating systems is something the City has been able to push forward. In a 2014 report charting the 5-year effort to improve air quality following the NYCCAS study, the top results report reads, “across the pollutants evaluated in this report, SO2 has shown the greatest decline, owing to State and Local efforts to phase out high sulfur heating oils through elimination of Nos. 6 and 4 oil and reducing the allowable sulfur content No. 2 heating oil.”

While successful in cleaning the residual oil burning, the City has found it almost impossible to curb traffic on the Queensboro Bridge. Several rights groups vehemently objected to plans to add the bridge to the City’s toll program, which might have decreased traffic and pollution.

Cornell Construction

Traffic and construction are not only coming from across the river. The Cornell Tech campus construction touches on both those with their ongoing construction and the truckloads of materials crossing the Island for the project.

Cornell wrote to The WIRE saying “we have avoided nearly 14,000 truck trips on Main Street… through multiple strategies.”

Linda Heimer, who was on the board of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC) when they were going through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) said that RICC, and various City agencies whose cooperation RICC sought for support, consistently pressed Cornell Tech to do much more barging than they were willing to do initially. She added that she is grateful that Cornell’s use of barging and many low-emission trucks resulted in reduced pollution on Main Street.

Looking at world-wide results according to BreezoMeter, an air quality tech company that aggregates and calculates air quality all over the world, our Island gets an 80 out of 100 for its air. Not too shabby.

Tags: Island Life Environment Dana Agmon

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