Uproar as New York Approves Crack Down on Wood-Fired Pizzerias, Forcing Them To Spend Big To Reduce Emissions

‘This is an egregious overstep of the state and local government,’ wrote one citizen in an official comment submitted to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Pohl
Carmine and Son’s Pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which uses a wood-fired oven to bake its pizza, spent about $50,000 to install a costly 'scrubber' to reduce emissions. Marie Pohl

New York City has approved a highly controversial rule that requires establishments with coal or wood-fired built before 2016, such as pizzerias and matzah bakeries, to reduce their emissions by 75 percent. The regulation, which is to take effect on April 27, has elicited an uproar from the city’s pizzeria proprietors and pizza aficionados. 

“Please STOP this nonsense ..!! These establishments that are using these types of ovens are a staple to NYC and are here for us, locals to enjoy and for all the tourists that are enjoying them tremendously,” Anda Salgau wrote in an online comment on the Department of Environmental Protection’s website. 

In June of last year, the New York Post first reported that New York City’s environmental officials were going to “crack down on coal-, wood-fired pizzerias” and force them to install “pricey emission-control devices.” The article began the city-wide outrage that continues to rage today. New Yorkers panicked. The artist and activist Scott LoBaido threw pizza slices at City Hall, screaming, “Give us pizza or give us death.” His video rant went viral.

The regulation, which also affects traditional matzah bakeries that operate with wood-fired ovens, stems from an amendment to the “Air Code”, passed by the City Council in 2015. It mandates that food establishments dramatically reduce their particulate emissions by 75 percent. Particulate matter (PM) are tiny particles released into the air from smoke, fumes, soot and other combustion byproducts.   

The chef puts the Margherita, four cheese or meat pizza on a shovel in the oven. A firewood oven for cooking and baking pizza. Italian traditional pizza is cooked in a stone wood-fired oven. Getty Images

The soon-to-be-required filtration systems, also called scrubbers, that lower the emissions of anthracite coal and wood-fired ovens, don’t affect the taste of the baking dough, be it pizza or bread. They are not installed inside the ovens, but in the chimneys and exhaust pipes. But the regulation is troubling nevertheless, because the scrubbers are not cheap. Compliance with the new regulation could force many pizzerias to abandon their wood and coal-fired ovens, which are an inducement for patrons.    

A law requiring the expensive scrubbers actually went into effect in 2016. All New York restaurants and bakeries with wood and coal-fired ovens built after May 2016, already use these costly emission controls. However, according to an estimate by the DEP, less than one hundred establishments with older stoves do not (other estimates say about 130 pizzerias are affected) . And some of these ‘few’ businesses happen to be family run, decades-old New York treasures. Their compliance date was January 2020. But then the pandemic hit and put the enforcement on hold.

The teeth of bureaucracy grind slow but steady. Three and half years later, in the summer of 2023, the issue had finally chewed its way to the top of the city’s regulation-pile. The DEP announced it was time for the older ovens to catch up with the regulations applied to newer ones. 

The Sun visited one such coal-oven pizzeria at Manhattan in July. The family-run restaurant has been around since the 1950s, and is still struggling to cover debts and losses accumulated during the pandemic. The owners were so scared that “the city will come after them” that they did not want to give their name. “Why doesn’t the city plant more trees?” One of the owners sighed. “Why are they always coming after us?” 

Pizzeria’s such as Carmine and Son’s must install a ‘scrubber’ (the pipe seen above the oven) to reduce emissions. Marie Pohl

Many of the 155 comments the DEP received, and has posted on its website, echo that sentiment. “Please, grandfather these cherished old coal oven institutions without requiring them to install scrubbers. Introducing such upgrades would only be the beginning of a costly process, potentially exceeding $100,000 when factoring in expenses for architects, licensing, rebuilding, flue and more. Unfortunately, this financial burden could lead to their eventual shutdown,” the commentator, Juçara, wrote.   

“This is an egregious overstep of the state and local government, and puts an unreasonable burden on small businesses that have already endured tremendous hardships over the last 3 years,” another commenter, Marc Heller remarked.  

On July 27, the DEP held a public hearing on the issue. “Wood and coal ovens are one of the last uncontrolled sources of particulate matter emissions,” New York City’s environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Eric Goldstein, told the 33 attendees at the hearing.   

Mr. Goldstein explained that “over the last five decades the city council, state and federal government have required particulate matter emission controls on power plants, incinerators, burning plants, boilers, motor vehicles.” Particulate matter, he added, can be as small as a third of a human hair and “elude the body’s defense mechanism and harm the lungs.” 

The ‘scrubber’ (shown up close) cost Carmine and Sons about $50,000 to install. Marie Pohl

When the Sun asked Mr. Goldstein on the following day, if the city had any intention to plant trees, he said, “There’s a whole strategy of planting trees. There are comprehensive plans, there are hundreds of pages of actions the city is taking to deal with the climate crises, air pollution, water pollution, quality of life in our neighborhoods. This is one of many plans the city is advancing and I must say with great deliberation, this rule is eight years in the making.”  

Passionately defending the regulation, he added, “I think in the most densely populated city in the nation there seems to be a general agreement that that makes sense.” Mr. Goldstein further explained that, “New York has had among the worst air pollution in the country and part of the reason why air quality has improved is because sensible laws have been passed. These scrubbers have been around for decades … That’s just a basic concept of the Clean Air Act going back to the 1970s.” He said that “back when Con Edison wanted to burn coal in the city, they were required to install filters in the 1980s.” 

During the hearing, Mr. Goldstein and other city employees expressed that they too ate pizza, and that they were “not at war with pizza.” Rather, they claimed, they were trying to balance the needs of restaurants with keeping the air safe to breathe. 

As for the DEP itself, an agency spokesman claimed that wood- and coal-fired stoves were major polluters in neighborhoods with poor air quality, and defended the new pizza policy as a “common-sense rule” developed over years with restauranteurs and “environmental justice” groups.

“We are confident that these critical upgrades will allow us to cut harmful emissions and prioritize New Yorkers’ health, while preserving authentic New York City pizza,” said Edward Timbers, the DEP’s director of communications.

But when the Sun visited Carmine and Sons Pizzeria in Williamsburg, which uses a wood-fired oven and has been selling pizzas since 1979, the owner, Carmine Gangone, asked, “Does it really make that much of a difference? We have burned smoke coming from Canada and they’re worried about a wood burning oven? They let the baseball game play during the smoke!” 

Pizza salami baked inside the wood-fired oven of a pizzeria. Getty Images

When thick smoke from Canadian wildfires covered New York in June 2023, Mayor Adams did not stop the baseball game at Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees hosted the Chicago White Sox. The players had to continue the game while everyone else locked their windows and stayed inside to escape the heavy smoke that lingered for days.  

Carmine and Sons Pizzeria installed the costly filters five and half years ago. An architect informed Mr. Gangone that the regulation would be “coming down”, adding yet another rule to New York City’s dizzying maze of restaurant regulations and fees. 

“The machine was about $ 15,000 to 13,000.” Mr. Gangone told the Sun last summer. “Then you gotta get electric. You gotta get a plumber. You gotta get an architect. Everything came out to about $50,000. Then you gotta get the exhaust, the right tubing. It’s a lot.” 

“I am fortunate that I have the space to do this. There are some businesses that don’t have the space to keep this machine,” Mr. Gangone said, going on to detail the tedious process of cleaning the filters. “It’s a job to clean that every week, to literally stick your head in that thing, unscrew the top, hose it down, wait for all the soot to come down to your grease trap. Then you gotta go into the basement and clean your grease trap.” And if he doesn’t clean it once a week, “it’s gonna accumulate, and cause blockage in your drain, and you’re gonna burn out your motor.”  

The signage outside Carmine and Sons pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Marie Pohl

John’s of Bleecker Street, a coal-fired pizzeria established in 1929, one of the oldest in the country, invested more than $100,000 in the installation of its filtration systems. The general manager, who was referred to as Kevin J., also attended the hearing. He questioned where the New York Times, that had reported the filters cost “roughly” $20,000, had gotten that number. It appears that the New York Times had referred to the filters alone, and not calculated the many other costs which came with installing them.  

In July, Douglas Auer, a press official for the DEP, wrote the Sun in an email that “the price to retrofit/install an emission control device varies based on the size, age of the building and layout of the kitchen/type of stove.” Mr. Auer said it was not possible to give a general cost estimate because of “all those variables.” He further noted that the rule “allowed some flexibility given the particular conditions of the affected business.”

Businesses can apply for a variance but need to provide evidence that they are unable to comply with the mandate.

City Councilman Justin Brannan, who serves District 47 in Brooklyn, which includes Bay Ridge and Coney Island, has suggested a tax break “for the estimated 130 city pizzerias” affected, the New York Post reported on Monday. 

A wood-fired pizza oven. Getty Images

“When it comes to our environment, I’ve always believed we should be incentivizing and assisting instead of immediately punishing,” Mr. Brannan told the New York Post. 

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use