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Assembly Committee Rescinds Tough Anti-Smog Regulation

Rule aiming to cap pollution from petrochemical storage tanks found inconsistent with earlier laws.

New Jersey’s efforts to clean up its smog-fouled air, at one time the second worst in the nation behind Southern California's, has been long, difficult and costly. Perhaps nothing underscores that point as much as a regulation adopted last year over heated opposition from oil lobbyists.

Make that from lawmakers, as well.

Yesterday, the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee approved a resolution (ACR-132) declaring the regulation not consistent with the legislative intent of earlier laws, including one dating from 1954, and another from 1993.

The complex rule aims to reduce one of the biggest sources of chemicals that contribute to the formation of smog, or ground-level ozone, in summer months. It would require companies to install floating roof-tanks with domes on storage tanks at refineries and other petro-chemical facilities. The cost could run anywhere from $450,000 to $700,000 at each tank, according to Jim Benton, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Petroleum Council.

The regulation would remove 130 tons of smog-forming toxic chemicals, including carcinogens such as benzene, from the air, helping the state to eventually achieve federal air-quality standards for ozone. It is one of dozens of regulations in the State Implementation Plan, a Manhattan telephone book-sized document, all aimed at curbing smog.

At the hearing in the Statehouse Annex, much of the focus on the rule veered far from legislative intent, despite the unrelenting efforts of the chairman and sponsor of the resolution, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester). "Our focus is very narrow," he kept repeating. "Did the agency exceed legislative intent?"

He, too, found it difficult to stay on message. "There's a lot at stake here -- clean air, jobs and the economy.''

Perhaps because the resolution cited a law passed in 1993 and another more than a half-century ago, both proponents and critics of the measure strayed away from that issue. To others, it offered proof that the state has picked all of the low-lying fruit when it comes to cleaning up its smog-fouled air, requiring steps no other state has adopted with the exception of California.

Bill O'Sullivan, director of the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Air Quality, described the storage tanks as the biggest-ticket item of so-called stationary sources of smog-forming chemicals left for the state to control. Stationary refers to plants, factories and power plants that emit pollution. "Every little bit helps," he said.

If the rule were rescinded by legislative action, O'Sullivan and environmentalists argued the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees air-quality plans, would require some new tool to achieve the same reductions, a prospect that would be very difficult to achieve.

It might require going after other pollution sources that would affect consumers' behavior, such as how much they drive their cars, banning charcoal barbecues and forcing ride-sharing among commuters who work at the same firm. All have proved difficult to implement in the past.

Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, defended the rule, saying the federal Clean Air Act contemplated a strong role for states to define control measures that were state-specific.

Industry lobbyists focused on the cost-effectiveness of the rule, arguing it would cost more than $50 million to remove 130 tons of pollutants from the air. Benton noted that accounts for just 0.04 percent of the emissions contributing to smog.

Others, however, downplayed the costs. Jeff Tittel, a lobbyist for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, claimed a study in Green Technology said a program in California actually saved gas companies money by preventing evaporation of the product because of the domes.

In the end, Burzichelli cut off testimony, declaring there was enough justification to find the regulation inconsistent with legislative intent. The resolution moved out of committee by a 4-1 vote, though the chairman noted there would be continuing discussion on the issue with DEP and its commissioner before a floor vote in the Assembly.

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