Mr. Usmani monitors downtown air and noise quality
With Lower Manhattan’s long-term rebuilding still underway, environmental quality remains a priority. To help address local noise and air quality is the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center (LMCCC) and its environmental monitoring team. Led by Director Tom Kunkel, the Environmental Compliance and Coordination department tracks levels of dust, or particulate matter (PM), and noise across all neighborhoods south of Canal Street.
The LMCCC maintains stationary monitors that take continual readings from four locations. They are positioned to surround the 16-acre World Trade Center (WTC) site, one of the country’s most active construction zones. The monitors, located at 1 World Financial Center, 1 Chase Plaza, 292 Greenwich Street, and 80 Catherine Street, measure concentrations of particular matter accumulated over a 24-hour period, along with wind speed, direction, temperature and pressure. Their reports in part determine the overall air quality in southern Manhattan.
Still, with dozens of downtown construction sites actively digging, building, and trucking materials in and out, the LMCCC performs daily mobile air and noise monitoring. Badar Usmani is one of the agency’s two environmental scientists who traverse Lower Manhattan daily to record decibel and air-quality levels. Armed with mobile meters and a clipboard, Usmani and his partner Matt Foster can be found at the busiest intersections, construction sites, driveways, and sidewalks. There they test the ambient qualities that may lead to corrective measures that benefit the local environment.
LowerManhattan.info joined Usmani for one of his monitoring walks to get a better sense of how his work supports quality of life in the midst of tremendous post-9/11 rebuilding.
How do you determine where to perform mobile monitoring?
Mr. Usmani: We have about 50 different sites that we visit every month, from Canal all the way to Battery Park. So any place in Lower Manhattan with active construction sites, we go as our jurisdiction of the LMCCC. The frequency depends on which sites are most active. The WTC and Fulton Street Transit Center are very active, so I start with these sites. If we have a community complaint or there are specific requests, that’s usually where we start. For example, the Corbin Building, which is a project of the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), is pretty active. Lots of residents live around here, so we receive a lot of complaints.
With the Corbin Building work on one side of John Street, and 180 Broadway on the other, is it possible for you to distinguish what might be coming from one versus the other?
At 180 Broadway, which is going to be a dorm for Pace University, they are just starting, and now doing more excavation and digging, so there’s reason to be more dust. But at the Corbin Building, they’re mostly just working on the structure. So they have dust activity, but mostly it’s from cement or other trucks -- that becomes more of a noise issue, with higher decibel (dB) numbers.
Is the goal to take readings in the exact same locations?
It’s more about the most active places, like site entrances and places where there are a lot of pedestrians. This corner right here -- Broadway and Fulton -- there is a sidewalk and crosswalks, and a lot of delivery trucks for both construction and businesses. They can be really noisy, and especially in the summer the roads are really dry and it gets dusty. So we usually do a lot of monitoring on this corner. Anything over 150ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) is considered an exceedance or high-reading level.
Your team monitors air quality for PM (particulate matter) 2.5 and PM 10. What do those numbers represent?
Both of them are dust levels, with acceptable regulatory levels set by the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). They are measurements for the quantity of dust.
For noise, what’s the measurement difference between average New York street noise and truck traffic noise?
Average in Lower Manhattan is between 70 and 80 dB. Anything over 85 is considered an exceedance. A truck going by may be over 85, but this is something temporary that we don’t record unless, let’s say, it’s repeated noise like from the trucks coming through the WTC site.
We also do idling checks on all the vehicles to reduce unnecessary idling; local residents do complain about [that noise]. If [a truck is] parked and the engine is on for no reason, like even for delivery trucks, we make sure they turn off their engine -- especially on big trucks like 18-wheelers or concrete trucks. Sometimes they have generators that create the high noise levels. Most of our community complaints are about noise.
How do drivers respond?
When we do idling checks and we ask them to turn off their engines, they can get pretty nasty with us, especially in the winter, because obviously nobody wants to turn off their heat when it’s extremely cold. “I’m trying to keep the city warm” -- that’s what one guy told me. The engine being on has more to do with the noise than the exhaust, but obviously we’re trying to make sure the environment is clean so, it’s also about vehicle emissions.
How do you receive the complaints?
Tom (Kunkel) usually receives the complaints from the community, either directly or through the Community Board. But it’s from several different sources, including 311.
Where does the environmental monitoring you collect go?
We document all of our mobile-monitoring data, and update it on the LMCCC website (www.lowermanhattan.info), so people can have access to the actual data. For example, there’s construction work going on the Brooklyn Bridge. Some local residents contacted us one morning to say there was something noisy there the middle of the night. So we monitored the night work for noise and found that around 11 o’clock there were some really high noises that could have been from jack hammering or generators. So we documented it [and compared it to the baseline data], and Tom sent it to the DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation).
Are there certain areas where there is more of a dust problem than a noise problem?
It depends on the site, but mostly we find more noise issues than dust. And a lot of projects are pretty good about the dust. Like with the WTC site, the foundations are (mostly) done now, and the superstructure doesn’t really cause that much dust. Two or three years ago you would have found a lot more dust issues than today. Also, every month we have a list of the equipment at the WTC site. Most comply with (the LMCCC’s Environmental Performance Commitments) because they’ve been retrofitted to reduce noise and emissions, like using low-sulfur diesel fuel. But at sites where we still have issues, we make sure if we see equipment that is not retrofitted and it’s making loud noise that we talk the site managers.
How does mobile monitoring compare with stationary monitors?
Stationary monitors are usually just for the dust and not for the noise. We have four stations, and for example, if the one on Catherine Street, close to Brooklyn Bridge, collects any sort of elevated activity we usually go out there and check with our mobile equipment. Then we can tell if higher dust readings might be from wind gusts and from what direction it’s coming that might be affecting that particular area.
When you get an elevated reading what are the steps that follow?
First we try to find out what is causing the elevated noise or dust level. We take pictures and document whatever we think is the cause of the dust or noise is, and we share it with Tom and the DEC. Usually we try to approach site personnel or a supervisor, and they’re pretty good with resolving the issue. If the problem is dust, we ask them to spray it down with water, first and foremost, including muddy tires on delivery trucks, to help contain the dust level. And we’ll stay there longer to monitor after that. Also the city will send additional street sweepers to help [reduce dust].
How much time each day do you spend walking around?
A lot of sites. As I said we have about 50 sites south of Canal Street and we have to monitor all of them every month. So it’s not like if I do one site one day I’m done. There also might be one site I have to visit three times a day, like the WTC. But it depends if there are any special activities going on, and whether I have to check a site in the morning, afternoon or evening. Then I come back to the office and enter it all electronically. If there were any exceedances I’ll make a report of noise and dust reading data to share with Tom and the project’s manager. I’ll usually inform everyone as quickly as possible if it’s an elevated level.
What are the loudest sounds you’ve encountered?
|Approximately 50 sites are regularly monitored
At the Vehicular Security Center that’s part of the WTC, they were doing some excavation. There is a residential building at 90 West Street, and there were a lot of complaints a few months back. We had come noise readings close to 100, which is pretty high, mostly due to the hoe-ramming (to break up and remove rock). The loudest thing usually is jack hammering, especially if they’re the old jackhammers that haven’t been retrofitted. There is the option to use rock blasting, but then blasting [may increase] the dust.
Has the Greenwich South area changed now that the WTC Memorial plaza is open?
Since they opened the Memorial, we could see a little bit of higher noise readings -- but mostly just from people’s conversations, so it’s pretty good. But the noise fluctuates a lot. There were some construction activities on Washington Street so it used to be pretty loud, but now they’re working on the other side [of the block].
Are you monitoring Occupy Wall Street noise at Zuccotti Park?
Yes, we’ll add new locations as needed. For Occupy Wall Street, we usually do the monitoring when they’re playing musical instruments. They can be pretty loud when they’re playing and it might exceed 85 dB, and there might be complaints, so we just keep a record. Really it has nothing to do with construction, and we have no authority over that as a public event. As for more construction sites, for example there is a new project on Nassau Street. They’re going to start with piles and so I’m adding that to make sure we follow it for dust and noise.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I get to learn a lot of different, new things, and I interact with more people. For me it’s exciting to find out what they’re doing actually [at the different work sites], with so many different projects going on. For example, Brooklyn Bridge, what they’re doing over there is totally different than what they’re doing at WTC, so it’s something exciting.