Can New Jersey Breathe Easier?

DEP tells federal agency that a number of counties now comply with standard for soot

NJ smokestacks
Is New Jersey’s air getting cleaner? Perhaps so, says the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The state is asking the federal government to find New Jersey in compliance with an important air quality standard, one that aims to prevent premature deaths, increased asthma attacks, and decreased lung functions among residents from exposure to the pollutant.

In a filing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state DEP said New Jersey is in compliance with an existing federal standard for soot. Under bureaucratic jargon, the pollutant is called fine particulate matter, which the federal agency blames for causing tens of thousands of premature deaths each year.

Here’s why: Soot, made up of microscopic particles released from utility and manufacturing smokestacks, diesel trucks and other sources, contributes to haze and can penetrate deep into lungs, producing a range of respiratory ailments.

The filing, submitted earlier this month, is significant not only for residents suffering from respiratory problems, but also for businesses. They will face less stringent regulatory measures to control emissions that contribute to soot pollution, a burden industry has often railed about. But it also could lead to tougher controls on vehicles along heavily trafficked highways in urban areas.

If accepted by the EPA, it also would mark an important step in the state’s efforts to comply with federal clean air laws. Currently, 13 counties are considered in non-attainment of the federal health quality standard for particulate matter, or soot. They include Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Union, Burlington, Camden and, Gloucester counties

Click to expand.

In addition, New Jersey has never met federal health quality standards for ground level ozone, the main ingredient in the smog that blankets the state for much of the summer. In Warren County, it exceeds the health quality standard for sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, two of the other seven pollutants regulated by the federal Clean Air Act. The non-attainment areas for carbon monoxide include 11 counties.

The latest DEP request was made based on two years of monitoring air quality data around the state, which found New Jersey, not only in compliance with an existing federal standard for particulate matter, but also below a new standard proposed by EPA last month. In its request, the state described the step as a “major milestone” in efforts to clean up air.

That proposed new federal standard has come under intense criticism from business interests, who say it could hinder economic growth and cause job losses in areas where soot pollution is deemed to be high.

In its proposed revision of its so-called State Implementation Plan, a blueprint for reducing soot pollution, the DEP claimed air quality monitoring data shows compliance with the standard and a decreasing trend in soot concentrations over time.

In its request to EPA, the state argued it would maintain its compliance with the federal air quality standard for soot through its Energy Master Plan and State Strategic Investment Plan, the latter of which has yet to be adopted by the Christie administration.

At least one persistent Christie administration critic is skeptical whether the state has lowered soot emissions enough to achieve the air quality standard.

“The trend may be down the last two years because of the recession, not from actions taken by the state,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
He also questioned whether the standards were met by shifting air quality monitoring stations to locations where compliance could be easier met.

In addition, Tittel questioned how effective the Energy Master Plan would be in reducing soot pollution. The plan calls for 1,000 megawatts of non-polluting offshore wind to be developed by 2020, a goal many observers believe is very unlikely to be met.

That view was disputed by the proposal submitted to the EPA.

“New Jersey attained the standards due to permanent and enforceable measures that the state and federal government adopted or implemented,” according to the DEP proposal. Those range from clamping down on emissions from power plants, boilers and refineries, as well as numerous steps to curb pollution from common consumer products and fuels used in transportation.

In its proposal, the state said the reduction is due to a significant decrease in all of the primary components that contribute to fine particulate pollution — sulfate, organic carbon, nitrate, ammonium and elemental carbon.

The proposal was submitted to the federal environmental agency shortly before DEP sent to the EPA another proposal suggesting that Barnegat Bay is no longer impaired — a recommendation many conservationists argued is premature at best.

A public hearing on the proposed revision to particulate matter attainment plan will be held September 5 at 10 a.m. in the DEP building in Trenton on West State Street.