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More Smog in the Forecast for New Jersey?

Obama administration backs away from new rule that would tighten limits on ground-level ozone.

Compared with last year, this summer may have been a tad less taxing for those who experience breathing problems when smog blankets parts of New Jersey, a process involving an array of pollutants from cars, power plants and factories mixing together and cooking in the hot sunlight to form ground-level ozone.

So far, the state has violated the national health quality standard for ozone on 21 days in at least one part of New Jersey. That's an improvement from the previous summer, when the standard was exceeded 34 times as of September 6.

Presidential Pullback

But that was of little solace to environmentalists this past Friday, when the Obama administration unexpectedly announced on the eve of the busy Labor Day weekend, that it was pulling back a new rule that would tighten the standard for ground-level ozone, one of the most persistent pollution problems affecting the country. High levels of ozone contribute to asthma, heart problems and lung ailments.

Environmentalists argued the move would exacerbate health problems for children and those with respiratory problems in a state that has failed to ever attain the federal health quality standard for ozone. The more stringent change in the standard would have increased the number of areas around the country required to take steps to curb ozone levels, and would have forced New Jersey officials to adopt even more stringent measures to reduce smog-forming chemicals from vehicles, refineries and other manufacturing operations.

For the business community here, however, the pullback was a prudent step given the weak economy and sluggish job growth.

"It's probably not the right time to put the burden on the business community,'' said Michael Egenton, a senior vice president for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. "Jobs and growing the economy are on everyone's agenda, including the President's.''

New Jersey, which at one time ranked behind only southern California in poor air quality for smog, has often gone far beyond other states in adopting pollution control measures to clean up its air.

Motorists today fuel up their cars at service stations equipped with special nozzles to reduce smog-forming chemicals. The state has adopted regulations preventing idling of diesel-fueled vehicles, which contributes to the problem. In a step that has irked lawmakers, it has proposed a rule to require companies to install floating roof-tanks with domes on storage tanks at refineries and other petro-chemical facilities.

The last regulation, which was adopted in 2009, has been often been cited by business lobbyists as a factor in why New Jersey companies have a tough time competing with their neighbors.

"It's a kind of an example where New Jersey is forced to adopt extraordinary strategies not put in place anywhere else,'' said Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council. His group claims the rule, if adopted, could run anywhere from $450,000 to $700,000 for each tank. A similar regulation was considered in both Texas and California, but never adopted, Benton said.

"We're at a disadvantage here in New Jersey when things are done on a statewide or regional basis,'' Egenton agreed.

That view was disputed by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who argued the proposed rule, if allowed to have been implemented, would have been beneficial to the state by imposing tougher regulations on coal-fired power plants, refineries and cement kilns in neighboring states, which contribute heavily to New Jersey's smog problems.

Not only those sources would be targeted, Tittel argued, but also the proposed rule would have gone after other, more unpopular causes of smog: dirty lawnmowers and wood-burning stoves. "This will just make it harder for people to breathe in the summertime in New Jersey," he said.

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