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Bridgegate Gets Dirtier: Air-Quality Monitor Was Offline During Traffic Jam

Readings from other instruments reveal unhealthy levels of particulates from stalled cars, trucks, buses

george washington bridge

Editor's note: The U.S. Region II office of the EPA yesterday released a letter saying its inquiry determined air-quality monitoring equipment was operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in accordance with agency rules and air-quality concentration did not exceed health standards for pollutants.

Amid all the investigations into the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last fall, yet another inquiry has been launched by a federal agency into what happened and why.

But this investigation has nothing to do with who ordered the shutdown. It focuses instead on why an air-quality monitor closest to the bridge was inoperative for a few days during the lane closures, when drivers were stuck in a massive traffic jam for hours on the busiest motor vehicle bridge in the world, spewing pollution into the air.

Why should people care? The monitor is used to measure the amount of fine particulates in the air, a dangerous pollutant from trucks, cars, and buses. The state only recently achieved compliance with federal air-quality standards that safeguard human health -- decades after the Clean Air Act was enacted.

At the request of the New Jersey branch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General has opened an initial review of the issue.

“Public health safeguards, like pollution monitors, should be off-limits to political manipulation,’’ said Bill Wolfe, director of New Jersey PEER. “Perhaps there is an innocent explanation for marooning thousands in a pollution Twilight Zone, but no one in the Christie administration has yet to offer one.’’

The night before the lane closures on September 8 and continuing for the next two-and-half days, the air quality monitor, the closest to the bridge atop a Jersey City firehouse, operated by the state Department of Environmental Protection ceased reporting data about the level of particulates in the air. Previously, the monitor had experienced only very short outages.

According to NJ PEER, the air pollution monitoring devices are required under the federal Clean Air Act and their use by state agencies is overseen by the EPA. Their purpose is to measure the amount of diesel, oil, and other fuel particles in the air. These particles are so small that they penetrate the deepest recesses of the lungs and are linked to asthma, other respiratory diseases, and premature death -- although exposure must occur over a long time.

The readings from other monitors, as well as the inoperative monitor once it came back online, suggest that air quality reached unhealthy levels during the closure. Particulate readings on the out of service monitor were more than twice the level before it was shut off, according to NJ PEER.

“This extended outage masked the health effects on those stuck on the bridge enduring hours of exhaust from idling vehicles,’’ Wolfe said “This act literally added injury to insult.’’

The governor’s press office failed to respond to comment on the issue.

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