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Grease guzzler: Scott and Bill McGrath’s 2002 VW runs on waste oil.

All Fueled Up
Strict new state emissions regulations lack a loophole for super-efficient “grease cars”

When Brian Stratton needed a new car in September, he decided to go diesel. “I’ve always been concerned about fossil-fuel usage,” said Stratton, a geographic-information-systems technician at the Nature Conservancy. His new Volkswagen diesel gets 50 mpg on the highway and 42 in town, equivalent to a gasoline-electric hybrid. After Stratton installs an $800 adapter kit, it will also become a “grease car,” running on waste vegetable oil from fast-food restaurants.

But it’s a good thing that Stratton made his decision now. New York, along with a few other states, has adopted stricter
emission-control standards, based on California’s famously aggressive ones, and diesel passenger cars don’t make the cut. Starting with 2004 models, Volkswagen, the only company selling non-luxury diesels in the United States, won’t be selling diesel passenger cars in New York.

The problem is not the diesel engines themselves—it’s the fuel. Diesel engines can run on many different fuels (though not regular gasoline), but the diesel fuel that is regularly available in the United States is very crude. It releases high levels of particulate emissions, carcinogens, and smog-forming compounds, and its high sulfur content breaks pollution-control devices.

A 1998 report from the National Resources Defense Council, Exhausted by Diesel, cataloged dozens of carcinogens in diesel exhaust—including arsenic and mercury—and showed that diesel exhaust causes not only asthma attacks, but the condition of asthma itself. “Diesel exhaust contains hundreds of constituent chemicals, dozens of which are recognized human toxicants, carcinogens, reproductive hazards, or endocrine disruptors,” reads the introduction.

Low-sulfur diesel fuel, which is available in Europe and will be required by regulation in the United States by 2006, takes care of many of these problems. But many environmentally minded car owners are more interested in biodiesel options, which are even cleaner. Biodiesel can be manufactured from agricultural products, like corn and soybeans, and fed directly into a standard diesel engine. There are filling stations in the Midwest that carry it, but often in a mixture that’s 80 percent regular diesel fuel, since biodiesel is costly. Filtered waste cooking oil can serve as a cheap (and recycled) biodiesel alternative, though it does require an adaptation for the car.

Most tailpipe emissions from biodiesel are equivalent to gasoline, though they are somewhat higher in nitrogen oxide (NOx), a smog-forming compound. That’s not the whole story though, say biodiesel supporters. “The thing about biodiesel,” said Justin Carven, who sells grease-car converter kits from, “is that [the plants that make it] absorb more CO2 from the air than they produce when burned. It creates a balance [in greenhouse gases].” Carven and other diesel supporters also point out that since diesel engines are more efficient, they produce less emissions than you might think by looking at a single tailpipe test.

“It’s widely debated whether particulate pollution from the current diesel models is less harmful to the environment than the massive fuel consumption and pollution from fullsize truck platforms (SUVs and pickups),” wrote Jamie Vondruska of, a diesel-enthusiast Web site. “Most groups seem to think overall the SUVs are bigger polluters vs. miserly TDI [turbo diesel injection] equipped cars, but California and New York pollution regs don’t reflect that.”

“There’s such a stigma attached to them,” agreed Carven. “Diesel passenger vehicles are being vilified, when really they produce so few emissions and there are so few of them. It’s not like these trucks with billowing clouds of smoke.” And with fuel prices soaring, the efficiency of these engines is looking good to consumers; Carven said there are waiting lists for diesel cars at most VW dealers.

But many diesel, and even biodiesel, advocates slip a little too easily into dismissing the air quality implications of diesel fuel. “Never mind the diesel models get far better mpg, they are needlessly punished for pollution issues,” wrote Vondruska, in an e-mail that also criticized “questionable particulate and other standards.”

Pollution issues are, however, just what those emissions standards were designed to address.

And even biodiesel is “not without its issues,” according to Diane Bailey of NRDC, which has been leading a “Dump Dirty Diesel” campaign for several years. First, there’s the higher emissions of NOx and the fact that biodiesel is usually blended with regular, dirty diesel. But also, she said, there’s only so much waste oil and farmland out there. “If all the bio feedstock possible were used, it could replace about five percent [of our current fuel consumption],” she explained. “Diesel passenger vehicles are not going to lead us away from our addiction to oil.” The pollution control technology that works with low-sulfur diesel is also complicated and as yet untested over time, she added, saying that “gasoline technology is inherently cleaner.”

NRDC instead supports hybrid gasoline-electric cars, which it believes will eventually outstrip even diesel’s fuel efficiency.

Stratton is not convinced. “With the hybrid you’re still using gasoline to some degree,” he said. “You’re cutting down, but you are still using gas.” What attracted him to biodiesel, he said, was the idea that “if you had the infrastructure, you could harvest plants to run the machinery that harvests the plants [to make the fuel]. . . . You can be completely independent of fossil fuels.”

Biodiesel certainly sounds like a useful piece of the puzzle, but it is understandable that VW is reluctant to sell cars that would have to be adapted to run on french-fry oil to pass inspection. So for now, New Yorkers who have been bitten by the grease-car bug will have to settle for used cars—or travel to a state that cares less about its air.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Seeking more foot room: Famous Shoes. Photo by John Whipple

Vote With Your Feet
Longtime downtown Albany landmark Famous Shoes moves out, but its neighbors say there’s nothing to worry about

Art Smuckler used to deliver shoes to Mayor Erastus Corning. “Downtown has been in my family blood for . . . over 100 years,” said Smuckler, who owns Famous Shoes on North Pearl Street with his wife. “85 years in this location.”

But now it’s time to head to the suburbs. Smuckler said he bears no malice to downtown, it was just time to make a change. The jeweler across the street made an offer for his building that Smuckler couldn’t refuse, and he jumped on the chance to expand. “We had outgrown our premises 15 years ago,” he said. And yet, “We didn’t want to purchase the building next door, mainly because of the parking issue.”

“People are having to deal with the meters,” explained store manager Dave Meredith. “Twelve minutes for a quarter is very difficult. People would get tickets because they didn’t get out to their cars soon enough. That shouldn’t happen in a retail environment.”

Smuckler thinks it’s more complicated. “Parking has always been a situation in downtown,” he said, “since I was a little kid. They’re trying to address it, but it’s not an easy thing to address.” People have a strange mentality, he added, where downtown a parking lot a block away is too far, even though they “park at Crossgates and have to walk six miles.”

Meredith seems more eager for the move than the owners; when one customer commented that it was too bad the store was leaving downtown, he snapped, “No it’s not. It’s a very good thing.” There aren’t a lot of customers who want to come downtown, Meredith said, and the store can’t stay open after 5 PM because the streets empty. There are “a lot of bars and restaurants, but that’s not conducive to our business,” he said. “It’s a sad thing, slowly but surely [other retailers] are all leaving.”

But Famous Shoes’ neighbors feel like downtown is actually doing quite well by them. Paul Crabbe, of Paul Truman Jewelers, who made the initial offer on the Famous Shoes building, lives in Ballston Lake and has considered moving his business elsewhere several times in his 15 years downtown, but he’s decided to stay. “I like downtown,” he said. “There’s good growth.” Crabbe is not only staying; he’s expecting to put around $100,000 into renovating the new building.

“Famous Shoes decided to move because of a change in trends,” said Jack Yonally, who purchased Lodge’s department store, a Famous Shoes neighbor, eight years ago. But Yonally said all the signs seem positive for him. “Downtown Albany
. . . has had a resurgence in the last five years that has been absolutely phenomenal. . . . I’m expanding after 136 years. I purchased the building next door to Famous. I’m putting apartments upstairs, and I rented them out before they’re done.”

Parking is a red herring to Yonally, who recalls that before the parking meters, state workers parked up the street all day and customers couldn’t find anywhere to park. “I would be afraid if there were tons of parking places out front,” he said, “because it would mean no one’s coming downtown.”

In fact, Yonally is a little nervous that the increase in foot traffic is soon going to mean he ought to stay open into the evening. “We’re a family store,” he chuckled. “Broaching that subject with daughters and sons and wives is not an easy thing.”

Even Smuckler doesn’t think it’s all that bad. “Anyone not doing business downtown should think three times about it,” he said. But he’s still eager for that parking lot.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Dearth in the Afternoon
Political bickering and a missing pool of leftover funds leave some area youth on their own once the school day ends

Many Capital Region students may be left looking for something to do once the afternoon bell rings, thanks to $10 million in funding cuts for after-school programs.

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which supplies funding for statewide after-school activities through the Advantage After-School Program, has reduced the availability of grants by 50 percent in the upcoming fiscal year, forcing many programs to dramatically reduce enrollment. Some of them lost funding altogether.

“They’re saying we can still have 60 kids,” said Rick VanVorst, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Rensselaer, which served 100 children last year, “but [after the cuts] we can only fund 45 right now. Those 15 kids may be out on the street.”

The most difficult dilemma, according to VanVorst, whose funding dropped 25 percent as of Sept. 30, is deciding which children to exclude from the program. After-school programs are in high demand throughout the Capital Region, with many programs maintaining waiting lists. Without these programs, many children are left without adult supervision between 3 and 6 PM—the time of day showing the highest levels of criminal activity committed by and against juveniles.

“We service children that shouldn’t be out on the streets where they live,” said Sister Claudette Harris, director of the Sunnyside Center in Troy. The Sunnyside Center, which was able to supervise 150 children last year, was notified that its funding would be reduced by nearly 38 percent this year. “I realize that cuts need to be made, but I think [society needs] to service children better than we do,” added Harris.

At the heart of the funding controversy is a $10 million pool of unused funds from last year’s budget that could make up for the cuts—if anyone could figure out how to get the money. During the last fiscal year, grants for the AASP totaled just over $20 million—twice the funding set aside in the upcoming year’s budget. The state Legislature rationalized this reduction by saying it would apply $10 million in leftover funding from last year to make up the difference.

“There was enough,” said Mark Hansen, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), “so no program had to be cut.”

However, the $10 million in reappropriated AASP funding has yet to find its way to the programs that need it, and many organizations feel that they may never see all of the grants they depend upon to keep AASP programs running.

No one knows exactly what’s causing the delay, but Davia Gaddy-Collington, statewide director of the Coalition for After School Funding (an advocacy group composed of parents, students and providers), reasoned that the stalled funding is another by-product of conflict between Gov. George Pataki and the Legislature. The governor’s initial budget included the full $20 million in AASP grants. The governor vetoed the Legislature’s revised budget, but the Legislature overrode his veto.

“The Legislature blames it on the governor, the governor blames it on the Legislature, and the families are caught in between,” explained Gaddy-Collington.

In addition to the funding cuts themselves, many area organizations were troubled by the timing of their notification. Many programs continued to operate at full capacity after their contracts had expired, under the assumption that their budgets would remain at last year’s level. But since the budget negotiations dragged into the new fiscal year, the need to reduce enrollment was not made evident until, in some cases, up to a month after their funding was scheduled to be cut.

The Capital District YMCA, which operates after-school programs at several Albany elementary schools, was forced to cut enrollment by 100 students after being notified of a 19-percent reduction in funding.

Similarly, VanVorst explained that the contract for the program in Southern Rensselaer County’s Boys and Girls Club expired Aug. 31, a month before the funding cuts were actually communicated to the organization, and that he had no knowledge of what the upcoming level of funding would be. Consequently, the missing $10 million in grants described by the Legislature have become a sore subject for many organizations involved with after-school programs.

“We operated in good faith,” reasoned VanVorst, “and I don’t think the state did.”

—Rick Marshall



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