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Tailpipe Emissions Choking New Jersey Residents, Experts Say

Cars, trucks, off-road vehicles dump ozone into the atmosphere, the key ingredient in state's smothering smog.

traffic smog

New Jersey has made steady progress in improving its air quality over the past 10 years, but it may take another decade to achieve the federal health standard for ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in the smog that smothers parts of the state each summer.

With power plants and other industrial facilities in the state sharply reducing emissions from most conventional pollutants, aside from the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, it is time to focus on reducing pollution from vehicles, according to panelists at a conference sponsored by the New Jersey Energy Coalition in New Brunswick yesterday.

“It’s the cars; it’s the trucks; it’s the off-road vehicles that are going to be the big challenge,’’ according to William O’Sullivan, director of the Division of Air Quality for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

New federal fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars, as well as a new proposal to tighten standards for heavy-duty vehicles recommended by President Obama earlier this week, could help clean up the air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but other steps are needed.

O’Sullivan noted that half of ground-level pollution in New Jersey is blown here by wind currents from 14 states to the west. In those states, coal-fired power plants and other facilities are subject to less stringent environmental controls than in New Jersey, a factor that has helped boost electric rates in the state.

It also has prevented New Jersey from ever achieving the health quality standard for ozone. In 2012, there were 23 days when various sites around the state exceeded that standard, O’Sullivan said, an increase by two days from the previous year. The federal government tightened the ground-level ozone standard, making it harder for states like New Jersey to achieve the so-called attainment standard.

“About one in four days during the summer, you can expect the state to exceed the ozone standard,’’ O’Sullivan said. Ozone is a pollutant that aggravates respiratory problems in the elderly, young children, and those who exercise in days when the standard is exceeded.

Citing the challenges ahead, O’Sullivan predicted “we’re going to be in non-attainment [to meet the federal health standard for ozone] for at least a decade.’’

In other areas, however, New Jersey seems to be making progress.

This week, the DEP proposed a new regulation claiming to have achieved the federal health standard for fine particulate pollution. The contaminant, emitted by cars and factories, is blamed for leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year across the nation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With tougher controls imposed on power plants in the state, emissions of nitrogen oxide, another ingredient in the formation of smog, have dropped by 80 percent in the past decade, and sulfur dioxide pollution, which contributes to acid rain, fell by 90 percent, according to former Gov. Christie Whitman, who was the keynote speaker at the event.

But reducing emissions from transportation vehicles is another challenge altogether. Whitman, a former EPA administrator, noted that 44 percent of all nitrogen oxide comes from tailpipe emissions.

“There’s still a long way to go,’’ acknowledged DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, who also spoke at the event.

Others said there are some steps being taken by New Jersey to reduce pollution from vehicles. For instance, New Jersey has adopted the California zero-emission program, which requires 15 percent of the cars sold in the state by 2025 to produce no tailpipe emissions, according to Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation and energy storage at the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-funded organization.

Duvall touted the prospects of converting vehicles and other facilities to running on electricity, instead of gasoline or diesel. In Savannah, GA, cranes lifting containers from ships using electricity instead of diesel fuel have produced significant economic savings, he said.

For electric vehicles, he predicted that by 2020 the electric car consumers will buy should have two times the energy and come at about half of the cost of vehicles now on the market.

The focus on reducing emissions from transportation vehicles is likely to be embraced by alternative energy advocates, who say the state’s Energy Master Plan fails to adequately address emissions coming from that sector.

“It’s a new thing to be at conferences like to talk about transportation,’’ said Chuck Feinberg, director of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, a group trying to promote the use of alternative fuels.

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