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NJ Residents Can Breathe Easier, But Smog Remains a Problem, Report Says

Eleven of 15 counties monitored by American Lung Association earn failing grades for ground-level ozone

power plant smog
Credit: philly.com

New Jersey’s air quality is improving, but much more needs to be done, according to a report by the American Lung Association,

The state did well in dealing with particulate pollution -- which can cause numerous heath problems and premature death. But 11 of the 15 counties monitored by the group received failing grades for ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory problems among the young, elderly, and those suffering from asthma.

Ever since the adoption of the Clean Air Act, New Jersey has never met the federal health-quality standard for ozone, more commonly referred to as smog. It forms during hot summer days when sunlight bakes emissions from vehicles, industry, and power plants to create unhealthy conditions.

About two years ago, however, the federal Environmental Protection Agency concurred with state officials that it is meeting the standard for particulate pollution soot -- microscopic particles from power plants, industrial smokestacks, and vehicles, which can penetrate deep into lungs.

The EPA estimates that poor air quality is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, besides increasing respiratory ailments, asthma, and cardiovascular disease.

Beyond its success in cutting down on soot pollution, the report noted that New Jersey also is reducing smog, despite the failing grades the association issued for many of the state’s counties.

“New Jersey can certainly be proud of the progress we’ve made in cleaning up our air since the first ‘State of the Air’ report 16 years ago. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make our air healthy for New Jerseyans to breathe,’’ said Deborah Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.

It is not only a New Jersey issue. Nationwide, more than 4 in 10 Americans -- nearly 138.5 million people -- live in counties where ozone or particulate-pollution levels make air unhealthy to breathe, according to the report.

The state has taken aggressive steps to reduce air pollution, an effort it says has been hampered by neighboring states that have not done so. The result is that pollution from power plants outside of New Jersey make it difficult to achieve federal air-quality standards.

“Unfortunately, we’re not able to change the direction of prevailing winds that carry levels of air pollution, which significantly contribute heavily to our ozone issue,’’ said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “New Jersey needs these companies to do the right thing and operate their emission controls during ozone season starting this year.’’

So-called upwind pollution is a significant issue for states like New Jersey and Delaware, according to Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the ALA’s Mid-Atlantic region. “It’s a regional problem that needs to be done in a rational way,’’ he said.

Nevertheless, those states cannot only blame the problem on other states, but need to take action in other areas to improve air quality, including aggressive conservation measures to reduce pollution from transportation vehicles, according to Stewart.

But Hajna said in an email that there are numerous coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, with shutoff controls to reduce pollution contributing to smog during the worst of the ozone season.

The report called for the EPA to adopt tough new requirements under its proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce pollution from power plants, particularly those emissions that contribute to global climate change. The proposal is hugely controversial because critics say it will shut down many coal-fired power plants.

But others had a different take on the report.

“It clearly shows the biggest problem we have is transportation,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He and other environmentalists have often criticized the state for failing to move more aggressively to promote cleaner-running vehicles in New Jersey, such as electric cars.

The other way to reduce air pollution is to switch to alternative forms of producing electricity, a strategy the state -- as well as the rest of the nation -- is pursuing. Environmentalists also want the state to spend more money promoting energy efficiency, which would reduce customers’ bills and lower pollution.

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