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The List: 10 of the Garden State’s Recurring Environmental Problems

There are few secrets in this rundown of NJ's top environmental problems: Sewer overflow, smog, open space, and sprawl are just a few of the nominees

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New Jersey’s environmental problems are well-known, ranging from bad air quality, to pollution in waterways, to thousands of former manufacturing and other sites contaminated by toxins. They all have something in common, though: The state has been trying to remedy for decades, if not always successfully.

Despite strong support from the New Jersey’s many environmental groups -- as well as legislators and policymakers -- their efforts have not been effective in some cases. Many of the problems still defy solution, a reflection of living in the nation’s most densely populated and heavily traveled state.

A critical issue involving many of the problems involves the huge costs associated with dealing with them, which typically are borne by residents, local governments, and businesses. In some cases, the state has sought to address those costs; in other, it has shied away from imposing the expense on the public.

Here are some issues still facing the New Jersey:

1. Combined sewer overflows

The problem is probably one of the toughest to solve when it comes to preventing pollution in waterways and fouling beaches at the Jersey Shore. When it rains, especially when it pours, these systems, some more than a hundred years old, are unable to properly handle wastewater, resulting in untreated sewage being spilled into the state’s rivers and bays. Some estimate that the cost of fixing those systems could range up to $9 billion.

2. Unhealthy air quality

New Jersey has never met the federal health-quality standards for ground-level ozone, more commonly known as smog, which envelops parts of the state during hot summer days. Smog causes respiratory problems among the young, the elderly, and those with heart and lung conditions. The state has taken aggressive steps to deal with the problem, but pollution from neighboring states continues to cause problems.

3. Protecting open space and farmland

After years of pushing for a stable source of funding to preserve these lands, conservationists successfully lobbied and voters approved a constitutional amendment to dedicate money to that effort. However, the Christie administration is diverting 25 percent of the $80 million dedicated to that purpose, most of which would go to pay salaries, maintenance, and operation of state parks and wildlife management areas overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection. In the past, up to $200 million a year would be used to buy open space, farmland, and develop urban parks.

4. Stopping sprawl

This aligns with preserving open space, but it also means diverting scarce state resources to areas already developed, instead of building on land that needs new roads, sewers, and other infrastructure. The Christie administration revamped the state’s primary land-use plan early in its first term, but the new blueprint, dubbed the Strategic Investment Plan, has yet to be adopted.

5. Cleaning up the state’s waterways

Most of the state’s rivers, bays, and other waterways fail to comply with the federal Clean Water Act’s mandate to be “fishable and swimmable.’’ The problems range from dioxin-contaminated fish in the Newark estuary to contamination of shellfish beds at the Jersey Shore. That said, the state has made big strides in cleaning up discharges from wastewater-treatment plants discharging into waterways.

6. Cleaning up the legacy of toxic waste dumps

At one time, the number of sites contaminated with pollutants ranged above 20,000, but thousands have been cleaned as a result of a new program allowing companies to hire private consultants to design remedies. It is a program applauded by some business interests, but opposed by environmentalists who are worried the cleanups are not as effective as those the state would require.

7. Converting the state to a cleaner running fleet of vehicles

Unlike most other states, New Jersey’s transportation system is the biggest source of greenhouse gases -- not power plants. The state’s efforts to develop alternative-fueled-vehicles, however, are spotty at best, according to clean-energy advocates. The proponents, particularly want the state to promote electric vehicles.

8. Making the Jersey Shore more resilient to extreme storms, such as Hurricane Sandy:

This is a big focus of the Christie administration, as well as federal authorities. Rebuilding homes damaged by the storm to prevent further storm-related damage is a priority, but not without controversy among homeowners and businesses.

9. Can Barnegat Bay be saved?

Perhaps the toughest problem, given the troubles afflicting this valuable recreational resource. Overdevelopment has caused huge difficulties for the bay, a popular destination for many boaters, fishermen, and others. The state has adopted a number of steps to address problems in the bay, but the jury is still out on how effective they will be.

10. Developing cleaner sources of energy

In a state long recognized as having air pollution problems, New Jersey has struggled to find cleaner ways to produce electricity. The state has been highly successful in developing solar systems, but has fallen far short of goals to promote offshore wind farms off the Jersey Shore.

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