Philadelphia wants to ban highly polluting oils burned to heat buildings

These oils contain about 300 times higher amounts of sulfur and release more of several pollutants linked to asthma, and heart and lung diseases.

The skyline is reflected in the Schuylkill River as the sun rises over Philadelphia.

The skyline is reflected in the Schuylkill River as the sun rises over Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Philadelphia lawmakers want to ban the dirtiest kinds of oils used for heating in some buildings.

Experts say phasing out these heavy fuel oils is low-hanging fruit when it comes to reducing air pollution.

“It will substantially improve air quality in Philadelphia,” said Joe Minott, director of the Clean Air Council.

Heavier fuel oils — classified by numbers 6, 5, and 4 — are generally used in older commercial and residential furnaces and boilers. These oils contain about 300 times higher amounts of sulfur than lighter oils, and they release more pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, mercury, and nickel — linked to asthma, and heart and lung diseases.

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A bill introduced by Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown in September, and approved unanimously by the council’s Committee on the Environment Wednesday, proposes to phase out the use, sale, and storage of heavy fuel oils over the next five years.

“It’s a very dirty fuel,” Minott said. “So the people that want to continue using oil will have the option of switching to a lower-sulfur oil or switching out from fossil fuel altogether, which obviously would be where the Clean Air Council would urge this whole process to go.”

New York City passed a similar rule in 2011. About 10,000 structures, including 200 public schools, affected by the regulation were responsible for more than 85% of the soot pollution coming from buildings, as reported by The New York Times.

“With this change, there was a dramatic change in air quality, reduction in sulfur dioxide, as well as fine particle pollution,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who directed New York’s health department at the time the ordinance passed.

Farley said only a few buildings in Philadelphia currently use these dirty oils, so the impact here will be far less.

“But these fine particles from these fuel oils tend to stay near the site … so for the people who might be exposed, this is clearly a benefit.”

Temple University is one of the institutions using heavy oils in Philadelphia. But only as a backup, according to a university representative.

“We are aware of the proposed bill, and we are working internally and with city officials to ensure Temple University meets the environmental requirements intended within the bill. The project likely will be completed in the next calendar year,” spokesman Christopher Vito said in an email.

The energy company Veolia also uses these fuel oils at its Grays Ferry station. According to a representative, the company has been reducing the amount of heavy fuel oil No. 6, has eliminated No. 4 fuel oil completely, and is willing to retrofit its existing equipment to comply with regulations.

“Over the past four years, less than 1.5% of the steam generated in Philadelphia by Veolia has been powered by No. 6 oil, which is a backup fuel used for system reliability. The company will continue to comply with any laws concerning these fuels, and will continue to work toward meeting the city’s energy needs in a responsible, sustainable manner,” Vice President of Communications Carrie K. Griffiths said in an email.

Supporters of the measure say that given the lower prices for natural gas and cleaner energy, replacing older equipment at this time also makes economic sense.

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