People seem to be no longer as worried about the air they breathe in New Jersey, once derided as cancer alley for the spate of chemical plants and oil refineries along the New Jersey Turnpike.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is asking the federal government to find New Jersey in compliance with the national air quality for soot or fine particulate matter, a pollutant that causes severe health impacts for people exposed to unhealthy levels of the contaminant.
Yet when the state held a hearing on Wednesday, only one person showed up to comment on the petition, which state officials view as a significant milestone in its efforts to deal with air pollution problems.
In asking for the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the state in compliance with fine particulate matter, the DEP petition asserts air quality data monitoring shows New Jersey in compliance with the federal health standard for soot and a decreasing trend in concentrations of the pollutant through 2025, according to Sharon Davis, chief of the Bureau of Air Quality Planning.
The DEP attributes the decline in soot pollution to a variety of measures implemented at both the state and federal levels, including tougher pollution controls on power plants and more strict emission controls on motor vehicles.
New Jersey has long had difficulty in achieving federal health quality standards for a range of air pollutants, most prominently ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog. The entire state has never achieved the standard, which causes respiratory problems, particularly among the young and elderly.
Currently, 13 counties are designated in non-attainment for particulate matter, or soot. They include Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Union, Burlington, Camden and Gloucseter counties.
Achieving the health quality standard for fine particulate matter is no small accomplishment.
Soot, made up of microscopic particles released from power plants and manufacturing smokestacks, diesel trucks and other sources, contributes to haze and can penetrate deep into lungs. The federal government blames pollution from soot for causing tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, besides increasing respiratory ailments, asthma and cardiovascular disease.
In its request to EPA, the state argued it would maintain 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.
The only person to speak at the hearing was Kate Millsaps of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who argued it is premature to abandon the so-called State Implementation Plan (SIP) for achieving the health quality standard for fine particulate matter.
Among other things, Millsaps noted the state is promoting the development of three new natural-gas fired power plants as well other increased uses of the fossil fuel, according to the new Energy Master Plan.
She also questioned the data compiled by the DEP to justify its argument it is in compliance with new air quality standard for soot. “We’re concerned the DEP is cherry-picking the data to weaken environmental regulations,” Millsaps said.