A Holiday Debate: Clean Air vs. Full Wallets

Updated, 3:24 p.m. | It’s hard to spoil the Christmas or Hanukkah spirit at the popular holiday bazaars that sprout every year in places like Union Square or the Columbus Circle corner of Central Park, selling all manner of tchotchkes, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac for impulsive gift hunters.

But Jeffrey H. Brodsky, a graduate student in history at Columbia University, points out that all those stalls, lights and heaters are powered by diesel-fuel generators, which environmental groups say emit fumes that can aggravate lung and heart ailments and cause problems in children’s developing bodies.

“I’m not saying they should be closed down, but it’s almost Third World to put up with them,” said Mr. Brodsky, who lives three blocks from Columbus Circle. “We’re in the middle of New York City and we should be able to use electricity. We have ample power. It’s surprising that the city administration allows something so antithetical to public health.”

The markets have contracts with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, whose officials have pointed out in the past that they produce sizable revenue for a city in need just now, and that they are temporary; they last a month or so.

The presence of the generators, so large they need to be mounted on truck beds or trailers, has not discouraged tens of thousands of people from weaving through ad hoc shops filled with tree ornaments, hand-carved mobiles, woolen hats, decorative pillows, beaded jewelry, tourist posters, stuffed toys and almost anything moderately priced that the mercantile imagination can conceive.

Mr. Brodsky has fought the generators before. He called attention in February to the nine diesel-powered generators erected in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week to power the shows’ lighting, heating and all-important blow dryers. His complaint was seconded by many Lincoln Center neighbors, who worried about the fumes and noise.

When Fashion Week returned in September, two of the generators were gone. Organizers said that they were able to connect to electrical lines at Fordham University and the David H. Koch Theater. They also said that the generators that remained ran on a cleaner biodiesel fuel.

But Gale A. Brewer, a City Council member who represents much of the West Side of Manhattan, said then that the city should also be looking at all portable generators because they were fixtures of urban life, powering food trucks, street fairs and even facilities for the New York City Marathon, an event designed to stir sedentary New Yorkers to a healthy alternative.

Ms. Brewer said Wednesday that the Columbus Circle generators were not near any buildings, and she has not received any complaints about noise or pollution. But several years ago, she said, she asked the Department of Transportation why diesel trucks could not simply plug into lampposts and draw on the city’s electrical grid; she was told that such connections could not be allowed.

“They didn’t say why,” she said.

However, Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, said in an interview that lampposts do not carry enough power for the energy needed by large markets like those run by Urban Space Management, which operates both bazaars.

Mr. Benepe noted that that organization paid the city $1.35 million last year for installing the market in Union Square and $360,000 for Columbus Circle.

Isabelle Silverman, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that newer versions of diesel generators screened out soot and sulfur and posed fewer health risks. “Diesel soot emissions have been linked to aggravated asthma, cancer, heart and lung disease and even premature death,” she said.

Philip Abramson, a spokesman for the Parks Department, said that Urban Space uses “low emission diesel generators which have air filters which pick up particulate matter.” But Ms. Silverman and Mr. Brodsky responded that that description might not suffice to describe the cleanest generators on the market.

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