Last month, a coalition of environmental and public health groups asked New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend the burning of wood and other yard debris that was generated by Hurricane Sandy.
Some of the groups in the coalition include the American Lung Association of the Northeast, the New York Public Interest Research Group, the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the New York Climate Action Group, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter.
The coalition’s call comes in response to the news that an Army Corps of Engineers contractor received a variance from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to let them burn Sandy-related wood debris in open burners. Open burners are against the law to use to New York because of their air emissions.
As part of the variance, the contractor can install up to four air curtain burners to burn storm-related vegetative debris up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn from now through April 17. While the coalition acknowledged that this looks to be a quick solution to the vast post-Sandy cleanup process, they said that it would have a long-term negative effect on citizens’ health.
Just before Christmas, Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said the news of this burning was a bad Christmas present for New Yorkers. “As the region celebrates the Christmas holiday, Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Environmental Protection are filling New Yorkers’ stockings with lumps of coal,” Seyler said in a statement. “Much like burning coal, this variance is going to allow for increased air pollution, which can make people sick and send them to the hospital. We urge the city to rescind the variance and choose safe, non-combustion alternatives when disposing of the remaining waste.”
Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Research Group, added, “These air curtain burners will release thousands of pounds of particulate matter into the air, adding to the pollution levels in communities like Far Rockaway that are already suffering badly from health problems due to poor air quality.
“Why add to their misery when reasonable alternatives can be found?”
According to reports, the Department of Environmental Protection said it hasn’t decided if it would actually go ahead with the plan to burn the wood chips, but it wouldn’t give anyone a reason why they would consider it in the first place. However, they said a trial run turned out well.
The coalition reports that wood smoke contains at least 26 pollutants specified in the Clean Air Act as hazardous. Those pollutants include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and carcinogens. The coalition members said that these gases can “irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, impair lung function and affect vital organs.” With the most recent “State of the Air Report 2012” by the American Lung Association concluding that the air in the New York City metropolitan area is getting incrementally cleaner, those concerned with health aren’t willing to backtrack for a quick fix.
“For the residents of a community already so hard-hit by the devastation of a massive storm caused by climate change, it is inexcusable to place an additional burden on their respiratory systems by subjecting them to the toxicity of mass burnings,” said J.K. Canepa of the New York Climate Action Group in a statement. “This is, indeed, a ‘quick and dirty’ solution, all too quick and so very dirty.”