Friday, January 29, 2016

How Do You Measure Roosevelt Island Air Quality - Cornell Tech Campus Construction Insignificant Cause Of Roosevelt Island Air Pollution, Queensboro Bridge Traffic Far Greater Source Says Independent Expert From Barry Commoner Center

 Image Of Air Quality Monitoring Equipment From Frank Farance

Roosevelt Island resident Frank Farance helped organize a December 2015 meeting to discuss issues regarding air quality monitoring on Roosevelt Island. Among those participating in addition to Mr. Farance were:
  • Dr. Holger Eisl of the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment at CUNY Queens College (Barry Commoner Center), 
  • Andrew Winters, Cornell Tech Director of Capital Projects
  • Staff from Roux Associates, currently doing air quality monitoring on Roosevelt Island for Cornell Tech and 
  • Ellen Polivy, Co-Chair of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC).
The results of that meeting were discussed by Mr. Winters and Ms. Polivy during the January 25 Roosevelt Island Cornell Tech Construction & Community Task Force meeting. Here's the discussion.

Mr Farance provides this detailed report of the Roosevelt Island Air Quality Monitoring meeting.
I've been following up on several items regarding Roosevelt Island Air Quality (AQ) monitoring over the past 3-4 months, and I wanted to give you a progress report.

Earlier in the Fall, I was invited to and participated in Dr. Eisl's Air Quality Symposium, which included Federal, State, and City officials from various environmental, public health, community, and other organizations. In early December, there was a meeting of RICC, Cornell, and Queens College to exchange ideas and knowledge. I continue to work on this topic, but my positions have changed from where I was at in early 2014 with an AQ monitoring proposal for Roosevelt Island: I have been more informed by the science, the practice, the experience, and the politics -- of course, I still want better AQ for our community, for our neighbors, and our City, but I am a bit better informed upon how to proceed.


Several presenters spoke about how air quality improvements are being addressed. We heard from community leaders and their advocates. We heard from the EPA, NYS DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation), and NYC Department of Health in their approaches and successes. We heard from researchers who have been improving the knowledge of environmental sciences. We also discussed various topics. One topic I asked about, which was based upon some of the EPA and NYS DEC presenters' comments, was about various AQ instruments for monitoring. Essentially, the takeaway points from the discussion were:

(1) Air Quality is not like the other "Citizen Science" projects. While temperature and humidity might be crowd-sourced via amateur instruments, such as a home/school weather station, air quality is not as easily measured accurately. The AQ instruments, typically, are very expensive, require various calibration techniques, and require detailed knowledge for operation/maintenance.

(2) Amateur instruments have little use in enforcement. In other words, if your amateur instrument reads some high level of pollutant, it will not be enough to bring enforcement action against the polluter. Various data quality issues exist with amateur instruments.

(3) While Citizen Science and similar public efforts are, in general, good efforts, the measurement of air quality is significantly different in its observation requirements.

Although not expressed at this conference, Dr. Eisl has told me previously about failed efforts at the State level (NYS DEC) where they had tried the less expensive instruments but the effort had to be abandoned due to poor data quality. This is where Dr. Eisl's group has succeeded: getting better data quality that passes scientific muster and regulatory enforcement muster.


During the Fall, I had the opportunity to work with RICC's Ellen Polivy on improving AQ in and around our community. Ms. Polivy and I share much in common on this topic. Previously, I had spoken briefly with Andrew Winters of Cornell Tech on this topic who, as a new neighbor on Roosevelt Island, has their own interest in AQ on Roosevelt Island.

About a year ago, Dr. Holger Eisl of the Barry Commoner Center provided some feedback on the Cornell Demolition/Construction AQ Monitoring. Ms. Polivy (RICC) asked me to provide assistance in convening a meeting, which I did, and the meeting on December 2, 2015 included RICC (Ms. Polivy), Cornell staff, Roux Associates staff (the AQ monitoring firm at the site), and Dr. Eisl and his staff from Queens College. I was merely representing myself, and keeping the meeting agenda on-time and the discussion on-topic.

Ms. Polivy expressed RICC's concerns on AQ, including the various trucks and construction activity at the Cornell construction site, and other aspects that RICC had negotiated with Cornell. Ms. Polivy also expressed that she has other AQ concerns for Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side, including the Marine Transfer Station.

Mr. Winters was interested in Dr. Eisl's feedback, an exchange of ideas, and any suggestions to Cornell on improving their AQ monitoring at the construction site. Mr. Winters brought staff from Roux Associates, the firm that is doing the AQ monitoring on Roosevelt Island.

Dr. Eisl gave a presentation on Queens College work and their scientific progress, including a recent adoption of City law that required annual reporting of AQ by the City's Department of Health. The NYCCAS (New York City Community Air Survey) is described at:

Dr. Eisl's organization has been performing those NYCCAS air quality surveys for the City's Department Of Health for almost a decade. Both the quality of Dr. Eisl's AQ surveys and their ability to transform and dramatically improve the City's AQ over the past five years have been key features of the work at Queens College, and enshrining this into law is an acknowledgement of their value to the City.

Dr. Eisl brought staff to the December meeting. In 2014, Dr. Eisl had presented some technical questions about the present AQ monitoring at the Cornell construction site. My goal was to have the stakeholders present with their support staff, both scientists and practitioners, to have an informative discussion and exchange of ideas. That goal was achieved: there was a discussion of various instruments (Dr. Eisl had brought several AQ instruments to the meeting)

Images Of Air Quality Monitoring Instruments From Frank Farance

and some of their measurement techniques, and a discussion of quality assurance and quality control techniques of the instruments, their measurements, and their data. An outcome of the meeting was that Roux Associates and Queens College would continue to exchange knowledge, techniques, and ideas.


At this meeting with RICC, Cornell, and Queens College, Dr. Eisl has expressed his experience with several community-led AQ initiatives. Dr. Eisl gave an illustration of the community in Harlem and their reaction to a change in bus technology at the 126 Street Bus Depot. The buses would be converted to cleaner fuels, which would produce reduced exhaust emissions. The community was interested because they were concerned about AQ and pollution levels, even if they were promised that the new buses would be "cleaner". The MTA was interested too because, with these new improvements to the buses, they could quantify both the cost and the AQ improvements.

For this site, Queens College performed "saturation monitoring", which is AQ monitors around and nearby the facility both before and after the changes. From the perspective of the size of the City, the saturation monitoring is at a "micro" scale in that it involves an area of approximately a handful of blocks, and it is real-time. The City-wide survey is at a "macro" scale in that the whole City is covered, but performed seasonally (four times a year). A prior RIRA proposal was at a "meso" scale in that several neighborhoods would be covered (Roosevelt Island, Upper East Side, western LIC/Astoria) and would include seasonal and real-time components. These various approaches are important to understand, especially when applied to Roosevelt Island.

At the end of the saturation monitoring effort at the 126 Street Bus Depot, while results showed some improvements of AQ for the new bus technology, the improvements were lost in the "background" of the AQ of its environment of the Triboro Bridge, the Harlem River Drive, Second Avenue, and such. In other words, while the community had hoped there would be some understanding of their AQ and improvements with the new bus technology, in fact there was little improvement because of the "background" air pollution that overwhelmed the improvements from the bus technology. Dr. Eisl said that these bus technology improvements at the 126 Street Bus Depot were just "noise" in the bigger picture, i.e., the AQ improvements were of little significance for that community.

Dr. Eisl mentioned that he has a similar hunch with the Marine Transfer Station (MTS) on the Upper East Side: Lots of community opposition, but pollutants from the MTS might be dwarfed by the local pollutants of the FDR Drive and oil-burning boilers of the Upper East Side -- in other words, a disappointing outcome for the local community, just like the 126 Street Bus Depot and some other community-led efforts. Dr. Eisl expressed concerns about such a myopic approach on AQ, in light of the "pollution soup" that we live in.


Ms. Polivy had expressed RICC's concerns about the large amount of truck traffic passing through our streets, including possible AQ concerns. Dr. Eisl's response reflected upon the above experiences:

(1) Compared to the amount of vehicular traffic on the Queensboro Bridge, the Cornell trucks might simply be "noise" (insignificant) in the measurement of AQ on Roosevelt Island -- a drop in the bucket. Note: As the 5th busiest City bridge, with 174,000 vehicle crossings per day (2014), the vehicular traffic at the Cornell construction side is three orders of magnitude less than bridge traffic, i.e., a thousand times more traffic on the Queensboro bridge than at the Cornell construction site.

(2) Several of the City's pollution maps look like a highway map: many of the pollutants come from vehicular traffic.

(3) Even if Roosevelt Island had real-time AQ monitoring, it could not pinpoint a single construction truck as a problem, and it could not provide that information in real-time (within minutes to apprehend the polluter) because the data requires processing and fusing, which would not give enough space-time resolution to pinpoint the offender immediately. Dr. Eisl felt that it would be difficult to isolate the offender within the "pollution soup" surrounding the area.

(4) Although Dr. Eisl has reviewed the Cornell AQ monitoring reports and there have been elevated levels, which stopped construction work while conditions were mitigated, Dr. Eisl expressed skepticism that the construction work stopped *in response* to an AQ monitoring alert: Dr. Eisl suspects that a dust cloud formed (due to some construction work), it was *visible* to the workers, they stopped work, and then hosed down the dust area, i.e., the workers might have anticipated the problem.


At the March 2014 RIRA meeting, as Chair of the RIRA Planning Committee, I had made a presentation on AQ monitoring, and I suggested that RIRA approve a resolution making the request for AQ monitors on Roosevelt Island. RIRA was supportive of the resolution. However, around the same time we learned at that the City Council had broader support for Dr. Eisl's AQ monitoring City-wide, and the City's Department of Health (DoH) felt that putting 6 AQ monitors on Roosevelt Island did not make sense, i.e., it was not a wise use of a City resource concentrated on Roosevelt Island meanwhile other communities had similar needs.

Our reaction, as residents of Roosevelt Island, was to look for alternate funding sources to acquire the AQ monitoring service on Roosevelt Island (5-6 AQ monitors). Our community focused upon the 2014-2015 Participatory Budget cycle as a source of funds. The Roosevelt Island delegation of District 5 (Councilmember Ben Kallos) put forth a proposal for funding the AQ monitors, it had unanimous support from our delegation and was our delegation's highest priority. To make a long story short, the City's DEP is not the right agency to fund these AQ monitors and the City's DoH does not believe these are "capital" projects within the criteria and rubric for Participatory Budget projects. Simply, any kind of AQ monitoring equipment needs to be funded via the "normal" methods of the City budget. (Note: Our Councilmember has been supportive of our interests.)

Recently, Dr. Eisl's team was able to reduce the AQ monitors City-wide from 150 to 75, yet still maintain the same data quality for their air quality surveys. This is good science, and this is good government administration (same quality, reduced cost). However, this affects Roosevelt Island and its desire for AQ monitors: if Dr. Eisl were to recommend additional AQ monitors for Roosevelt Island, it would mean that Dr. Eisl did not "trust" his own AQ monitoring system to accurately measure air quality City-wide, i.e., the reduction of 150 to 75 monitors would not be sufficient because Dr. Eisl would believe additional monitors were necessary (such as on Roosevelt Island).

Thus, Dr. Eisl recommends no additional AQ monitors for the City-wide 75-monitor network, which were the kind RIRA requested in March 2014. These AQ monitors are seasonal monitors, they are very accurate (but they are not real-time).

Dr. Eisl has a small set of real-time AQ monitors throughout the City, I believe the number is approximately 20-25, and it does not yet provide the complete, comprehensive coverage of the City.

Dr. Eisl expressed that it might make sense to have 1-2 real-time AQ monitors on Roosevelt Island, but with the following understanding and caveats:

- The real-time AQ monitors would not be able to track down individual polluters such as Cornell construction vehicles or a barge from the Marine Transfer Station, and certainly not track them in real-time.

- We (Roosevelt Island) live in a "pollution soup" that makes it hard to track down individual pollution sources.

- The Queensboro Bridge is probably our biggest source, along with Upper East Side oil-burning boilers and the FDR Drive.

- The placement of a real-time AQ monitor might make sense on the Queensboro Bridge: not because of Cornell construction, but because of the vehicular traffic on the Queensboro Bridge is a large polluting source; and the placement of the real-time AQ monitor might make sense on the Queensboro Bridge at bridge level itself. Other siting locations are possible, too.

Thus, the Roosevelt Island real-time AQ monitors might be reasonable for *City-wide* benefit, but Roosevelt Islanders should not expect a direct, local, and immediate benefit for their community.

I took Dr. Eisl and staff for a drive around the neighborhood, including Roosevelt Island, Astoria, and Long Island City. He has a better sense of our community and neighboring communities.


1. Cornell's firm Roux Associates and Queens College were able to engage in productive discussions of the science and practice, and discuss the AQ monitoring at the Cornell construction site. I expect that they will continue their dialogue, including RICC. (Thanks, Ellen Polivy, for suggesting this meeting.)

2. Community-led AQ initiatives sometimes don't have the outcome expected by the community. As was the case for the 126 Street Bus Depot, the site's pollution with a drop-in-the-bucket compared to pollution sources surrounding the site (Triboro Bridge, Harlem River Drive, Second Avenue, etc.). The same might be the case for Roosevelt Island, with polluting sources from the Queensboro Bridge (174,000 vehicles a day), the FDR Drive, the Upper East Side oil-burning boilers, Ravenswood power plant, and other sources.

3. High quality instruments (not amateur instruments) are necessary for measuring air quality, and trained staff are necessary to operate/maintain the instruments.

4. It is difficult/impossible to tease out a single (mobile) polluting source, such as an individual construction vehicle, with real-time AQ monitors and discovered in real-time.

5. It is difficult/impossible to tease out different pollution sources in the "pollution soup" that we live in.

6. Adding more AQ monitors for Roosevelt Island, of the seasonal variety, makes no sense because the present City-wide survey provide comprehensive coverage, including Roosevelt Island.

7. Adding 1-2 real-time monitors on Roosevelt Island might make sense, but it should be coordinated with the City's real-time AQ monitoring program and the City's needs, and it should be owned/operated by the City and Queens College. It makes no sense to have such a standalone AQ monitoring system on Roosevelt Island.

8. We of Roosevelt Island should focus our air quality concerns in the direction of: supporting regional concerns within the City (UES, Astoria/LIC, RI) rather than just Roosevelt-Island-only or Community-Board-8-only concerns. This makes more sense from scientific, budgeting, and political perspectives.
Mr. Winters said of Mr. Farance's report:
I think it is an accurate record of the conversation.