Some so-called "idle warriors" are making huge amounts of money reporting commercial vehicles left running without a driver under the rules of a 2019 New York City law. One man has already made six figures off it.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to publicize the law, called the Citizens Air Complaint Program, in his final days in office as he pushed his climate agenda.
Here's how it works. Find a commercial vehicle that's idling. If it's in a school zone, record it idling for one minute. If not in a school zone, record it for three minutes.
Then upload the footage to the city's Department of Environmental Protection, along with a sworn affidavit. The vehicle owner can be fined $250 or more. The citizen reporting the idling gets $87.50, or one-quarter of each issued fine.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
It's become quite a lucrative side payday for New Yorkers like Donald Blair. He went after idling trucks and buses in Brooklyn and got paid $55,000. He has another $70,000 on the way.
Blair's combined haul of $125,000 is the most any single New Yorker has earned as far as a share of the city's $2.3 million in idling fines. Remember, a quarter of that $2.3 million goes to citizens who report the idling vehicles.
As Blair said, "If you want to change someone's behavior, the best way to do it is hit them in the pocket."
George Packenham is another watchdog in the group, which calls itself the IDLE Warriors. About 60 New Yorkers are involved. Packenham earned $40,000 so far.
He’s a former banker who refocused after his brother died of lung cancer and after the Iraq War didn’t trigger energy independence. Packenham says both those factors compelled him to make a statement as far as the climate crisis.
And while he thinks the 2019 law has made a difference -- a long-idling school bus across the street from his home hasn't been there the last two years -- Packenham says he's frustrated that many commercial vehicle owners don't pay the fines.
City Hall says there are about $8 million in unpaid idling vehicle fines right now -- and that Amazon is the leader. It owes $250,000 in those fines, City Hall says. UPS and FedEx are the next biggest scofflaws, owing $70,000 and $60,000, respectively.
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander calls that "outrageous" and suggests tougher enforcement is needed. He wondered if impounding all the commercial vehicles in an offender's fleet until tickets are paid would send a stronger message.
Amazon says it is working with city representatives to resolve its outstanding fines, while a UPS spokesperson said, "Our policy is to comply with the law ... and we will work with the city to resolve" the issue.
FedEx issued a similar statement, saying, "We always strive to comply" and emphasizing it plans to transition to an electric fleet by 2040.
Meanwhile, the city's Department of Environmental Protection is emphasizing the success of the law. Nearly 11,500 idling tickets were issued last year, more than double the 5,000 issued in 2019 before the law took effect.
Samara Swanston, an NYC Council legislative attorney who wrote the anti-idling law, says it works because New Yorkers are getting rewarded for their efforts.
For Swanston, the issue is deeply personal. She lost both her husband and daughter to asthma attacks. The sound of an engine rumbling isn't revenue to her. It's justice for family members she believes would be alive if the air were cleaner.
"I think they'd be happy we were doing the right thing for New York City," Swanston said. "We can do better, New York City."