Toby Buggiani remembers he was working at his computer one June morning when his West Village apartment filled with nasty smelling smoke that got him dizzy. The smoke was coming though his windows, he noticed, from a mobile boiler which local bastion of knowledge NYU had positioned right across the street from his building.
About every 20 minutes, the boiler chugged and spit out stenchy black smoke. Though it was summer,the 37-year-old had to keep his windows shut. If he didn’t, the exhaust, he says, besides making him dizzy, gave him headaches. His apartment got stuffy.
Still, Buggiani didn’t make a big deal about the situation. “The sign on it said Emergency Boiler,” he remembers, leading him to believe it was a temporary measure. The native New Yorker patiently waited for the day the boiler would be removed. About a month later, it finally was. Buggiani says he was relieved.
But when the machine showed up the next summer, he was irked; Another emergency? This time he called the city’s 311 number and placed about a dozen complaints. When Buggiani checked in as to the status of his complaints, a 311 operator told him a city worker had gone to look at the boiler and reported back that there was no smoke spurting from it. Buggiani countered the person must not have stuck around for the twenty minutes or so it could take for the boiler to kick on.
Nothing could be done, he was told. He says the boiler once more stayed for about a month.
This May, when the temporary boiler appeared anew, Buggiani got fed up — he spied the two workers installing it and confronted them. What sort of boiler emergency was there? Buggiani says the workers argued they were only doing their jobs, but then also confessed NYU had no emergency to speak of: The portable boilers were being hooked up around campus to save money.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Buggiani says of being told why the boiler was there.
As the workers told it: During the summer semester, there were fewer occupied university buildings, thus no need to run the main plant (which supplies heat and hot water to the entire campus through underground pipes). Instead, cheaper-to-operate mobile boilers were being connected to each peopled building.
Buggiani says when he asked the contract workers whether they would be dumping a boiler outside his home every summer, he got an infuriating answer: “We’re going to be setting it up next year and the year after that and the year after that…”
Alarmed, the resident sent an email to Lynne Brown of the university’s public affairs office complaining about the situation. In it, he accused the school of screwing over his neighborhood to save a buck. “Granted, money is always a concern, however, the placing of such a boiler on MacDougal street has consequences to the people who live here, many of whom, like me, have lived here before the existence of D’Agostino Hall and may not want to keep their windows closed for an entire month to save money for a corporation whose net worth is in the billions.” “The smog produced from this money saving ’emergency,'” he goes on to point out, “left a wonderful film of grime and soot on my windows. If I’d left them open, more would have been in my lungs. Please, make sure NYU is being a good neighbor and putting public health and safety before profits.”
Though the idea of a boiler menacing public health and safety might seem a stretch, there’s a chance Buggiani’s lungs were put in real danger by boiler exhaust. A New York boiler expert with more than thirty years of experience, who prefers not to be named in this article for fear of alienating potential business contacts, after taking a look at some photos
of the smoking boiler, is pretty sure he knows what kind of exhaust it was jetting: “Her engines are kicking out diesel smoke.” And diesel smoke is dangerous. The American Cancer Society is concerned about prolonged exposure to
it. “In laboratory studies,” a section of its Web site reads, diesel exhaust (as soot or chemical extracts) can cause changes in DNA.” It also notes the EPA considers diesel exhaust “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
Whatever the stuff issuing from the boiler was, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) thought it was a problem. On June 1, records show DOB inspector 2408 slapped a Class 2 (aka major) Environmental Control Board violation on the boiler. Soon after, it was gone, Buggiani remembers. Though happy to be liberated from the polluting apparatus, he isn’t convinced the boiler is gone for good: “It could happen again,” he says.
It could. Contacted via email, Robert Daly, Technical Director of DOB’s Boiler division offers that ” A mobile boiler can be installed for many reasons [and] at any time.” He also says there are no restrictions on how long an institution can use them.
A university spokesperson has some issues with Buggiani’s boiler story: N.Y.U, the spokesperson claims, didn’t use any of the nine or so boilers it set up around the city this summer to save on energy costs: “That’s ridiculous.” All the boilers are related to repairs and upgrades being made to the schools heating and hot water systems. And the MacDougal boiler
wasn’t removed because of the ECB violation. It was removed because the work that was being done to pipes below D’Agostino hallis finished, and the boiler was no longer needed.
As for Buggiani dealing with the boiler for three consecutive summers, the spokesperson says, “No one knows of any boiler placed on MacDougal Street last summer.”
Light Buggiani, Toby Buggiani’s brother and neighbor, says N.Y.U. is lying. Though he can’t remember whether the boiler was there two summers ago, it was definitely there last summer. It’s hard to forget because “You have this big ugly thing outside your house. This big ugly thing spewing smoke.” He says the smoke irritated both him and his girlfriend. “It’s like if you had a car running in your living room.”
Julie Marr, another neighbor, says she doesn’t remember exactly when she’s seen the boiler in the past, but knows it’s been there before. She also says the smoke isn’t an issue for her, she doesn’t notice it, but the boiler blocks traffic and contributes to all the noise the university brings to the neighborhood with an endless series of construction
projects, and that makes her mad.
“They’ve ruined the city,” she says. “The way they’ve gobbled up
all the real estate and changed the neighborhood. They’re just like big bullies.”
Though asked, N.Y.U. didn’t supply figures regarding whether renting emergency boilers to avoid the cost of running it’s main plant would be cost-efficient. The boiler expert thinks it would be. He says the school renting boilers during the summer to save on energy would make perfect sense.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 21, 2009