Clearing the Air: After Outcry, DEP Denies Polluters the Free Pass they Sought

Billy never idles — and now, neither will Spectrum.
Billy never idles — and now, neither will Spectrum.

No pollution for you!

The city Department of Environmental Protection changed its mind about giving a free pass to several repeat offenders of city anti-idling law, quietly revealing on Friday that it had turned down requests from three companies to stop being ticketed for polluting city air.

The three would-be polluters — Osmose Utilities Services, Loomis Armored US and Spectrum — were all notified on Thursday by DEP. All three letters refer to city rules stating that DEP can only grant a variance if a company shows that complying with the law causes “unreasonable hardship.”

“Unreasonable hardship has not been adequately shown,” concluded Mark Page, the acting director of the agency’s
Bureau of Environmental Compliance, using more or less the same language in his letters. Page concluded that all three exceptionally well-off companies could simply acquire additional equipment to power its machines in the field rather than simply defaulting to the power generated by an idling internal combustion engine.

Page’s letters came after intense scrutiny of the process by Streetsblog, which first revealed the city’s plans for the variances, and published an op-ed from a pediatrician about the danger of the proposal.

The department’s denials cheered the small cohort of New Yorkers that has taken upon itself the Sisyphean task of reporting idling vehicles to the DEP (in exchange for a small portion of the summons fee).

“These requests used to be rubber-stamped,” said Eric Eisenberg. “These are the first times DEP has ever denied an idling variance request, so this represents a somewhat monumental development.”

Eisenberg attributed the agency’s rejection to a combination of complaints from activists, plus letters from Manhattan Community Board 4 and state Sen. Brad Hoylman that “helped scare the DEP into realizing it needs to be serious about idling and environmental protection.”

Patrick Schnell, the pediatrician, expressed surprise at the victory.

“Honestly, after all these years of seeing DEP encourage and protect idlers, I am a bit shocked,” he said. “Clearly, those companies did not have any valid arguments to support their requests for variances, but that did not keep DEP from granting variances in the past. This is certainly great news for New Yorkers.”

After initial publication of this story, DEP’s Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability Angela Licata sent over a statement about her agency’s refusal to grant the variances:

“Idling vehicles harm air quality and are a threat to public health, which is why we are demanding that the best available technologies are utililized to power these commercial vehicles,” she said.

These three variances aside, activists and all New Yorkers who breathe, are now awaiting the fate of a larger change that has been proposed by DEP that would tweak the language of existing regulations. Currently, a company can argue that its vehicles must remain on so that workers can perform the essential tasks, and the city is considering broadening the definition of what types of “processing devices” meet that threshold.

That proposal has also come under fire, but there’s reason to believe that the language change will meet the same fate as the three companies’ variances. After Streetsblog’s initial coverage of the variance hearing earlier this month, a spokesman for the DEP said, “Due to some persuasive comments received during the public hearing, we are considering some tweaks to the proposed new language.”


Enforcement Lags as Tour Bus Companies Flout Pollution Regs

Comptroller William Thompson and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer want the city to enforce a law mandating that sightseeing buses reduce harmful emissions. Meanwhile, a citizen group called "Tour Buses No — Tourists Yes" also wants the buses off residential streets. In separate letters issued this month to the Department of Environmental Protection, Thompson and […]

Idle Hands

  Class-cutting school kids in Bushwick and the South Bronx, fear not. The clipboard-wielding women standing outside your school aren’t looking to bust you, they’re trying to help you breathe. As reported in last week’s New Yorker Talk of the Town: The women belong to a nonprofit group called the Asthma Free School Zone, which, […]

Rally Wednesday for Tougher Idling Regs Near Schools

Last week’s Chinatown disaster has prompted a good bit of discussion about idling vehicles. As it happens, two bills are wending their way through the City Council that would tighten idling restrictions and foster improved enforcement. A vote is expected tomorrow on Intro. 2007-631, which would reduce the maximum idling time from three minutes to […]

Streetfilms: Anti-Idling Laws Clear City Council

Two laws designed to decrease pollutants and other safety hazards posed by idling vehicles passed the City Council this week. As shown in this Streetfilm by Elizabeth Press, Council Member John Liu’s Intro 631 cuts down the amount of time drivers are allowed to idle near schools from three minutes to one minute. A second […]