State Urged to Do More to Battle Air Pollution

New Jerseyans are breathing more than their fill of dirty air, according to a new report. Surprisingly, it found the most bad-air days in 2016 were logged in bucolic Warren County

power plant smog
New Jerseyans breathed dirty air in 2016 — for as much as one-third of the year in some areas of the state — underscoring the need for the new Murphy administration to do even more to battle air pollution, a new report contends.

The report titled Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathe Polluted Air, released yesterday by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, counted a cumulative total of 543 days of poor air quality among six metropolitan areas covering the state. It examined data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relating to air pollution levels from ozone or smog and particulates, which are fine particles that come from the burning of such fossil fuels as coal, diesel, gasoline and natural gas. These pollutants have been linked to a worsening of asthma and other respiratory problems and an increased risk of premature death.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the actual number of days that New Jersey exceeded established federal standards for ozone or particulates in 2016 was far lower — just 26. He said Environment New Jersey’s report used a different standard, counting days when air pollution levels were moderate and did not exceed federal health standards.

Unhealthy Air Days

Number of days in which at least half of monitors reported elevated levels of pollution
Metropolitan Area Ozone Particulates Ozone and/or particulates Population
Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ (includes Warren County) 44 106 133 835,233
Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ 31 28 50 270,830
New York-Newark-Jersey City NY-NJ-PA 40 50 75 20,275,179
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 51 74 111 6,077,152
Trenton, NJ 64 69 109 373,660
Vineland-Bridgeton, NJ 34 44 65 153,914

Source: Trouble in the Air report.

The report’s authors justified their use of including air-pollution counts considered moderate and not necessarily unhealthy or hazardous by federal officials.

“There’s no safe level of exposure to smog and particulate pollution,” said Elizabeth Ridlington, a policy analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Even low levels of smog and particulate pollution are bad for health and can increase deaths.”

According to the data, the most bad-air days in New Jersey were logged in the Warren County region, which is part of the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Metropolitan Area. That region, which is among the greenest and least crowded in the state, had 44 days of elevated ozone levels and 106 of unhealthy levels of particulates, meaning more than a third of the year had hazardous air days.

No respect for state boundaries

“Unhealthy air days are endemic across the state,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center. Noting that it might seem counterintuitive that relatively rural Warren County would have the most bad-air days in the state, O’Malley said out that “air pollution does not respect state boundary lines” and noted that most of that pollution originated in plants in Pennsylvania.

Hajna concurred, saying that “emissions from vehicles, power plants and other sources in upwind states have a big impact on the quality of air in New Jersey.”

But even people living in the part of the state that had the fewest days with poor air quality — the Atlantic City-Hammonton region — had to breathe in unhealthy levels of pollutants for more than 1 ½ months in 2016.

The Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area, which includes most of the lower Delaware River Valley, was among the 10 most populous metropolitan areas in the nation with the most days of elevated pollution levels. The Camden area had 111 days in 2016, ranking it eighth behind such infamous hubs of air pollution as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas.

“All New Jerseyans should be able to breathe clean air,” O’Malley continued. “Even one day with polluted air is too many. To drastically reduce our dirty air days, we need to strengthen existing air quality protections and reduce global warming pollution. We shouldn’t accept bad air pollution, especially in the summer, as the status quo.”

Need to fight Trump administration

O’Malley said the extreme heat of 2016 — the state climatologist proclaimed it to be the third warmest year in New Jersey since at least 1895 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called it the hottest year on record globally — likely contributed to the large number of poor-air days that year. But as average temperatures continue to rise, and the Trump administration is preparing to weaken federal clean car standards and could do the same to the federal ozone standard, such pollution could become the norm without strong action.

“Cleary, we need to fight against the Trump Administration rollbacks on ozone standards and fuel efficiency standards,” O’Malley said. “But we also need to stop digging the hole deeper on carbon pollution and smog-forming emissions here in New Jersey. We need to move forward on electric cars and buses and a strong RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) emissions cap at the state level, and we need Gov. Murphy to intervene to put the brakes on the massive proposed Meadowlands gas power plant that will pollute our air for a generation.”

The result of inaction could lead to more New Jerseyans suffering greater health problems, both respiratory related and involving other chronic diseases and heart attacks, all of which are known to be exacerbated by breathing in fine particulate matter.

Environmentalists contend that that there is no documented safe level of exposure to these air pollutants. Even when smog levels are “good” or “moderate,” as defined by the EPA, a modest increase in smog pollution results in more premature deaths. That is also the case with pollution from fine particulates, also known as PM2.5.

“Air pollution kills us, literally,” O’Malley said.

Asking governor to act

The report urges urge the federal government to strengthen, not weaken, clean car standards and continue to allow states to adopt stronger vehicle pollution standards. It also calls on the EPA to strengthen ozone and particulate pollution standards.

Recognizing the unlikelihood of the Trump administration’s reversing course in those areas, O’Malley said it is incumbent on Gov. Phil Murphy to enact an aggressive clean air agenda for the state.

Murphy campaigned on a strong pro-environment platform and has already taken steps to reverse the inaction of the former administration on clean air issues. For instance, Murphy has already taken steps to bring the state back into RGGI, a multi-state program that sets a regional cap on carbon pollution from power plants and requires plants emitting pollution to pay for them with that money going to participating states to fund clean energy initiatives.

Last month, a coalition of environmental organizations urged New Jersey to adopt a stringent emissions cap of between 12 and 13 million tons of carbon dioxide when it re-enters RGGI in 2020. EPA data shows that the state’s power emissions in 2017 totaled 18.6 tons of CO2.

O’Malley also called on Murphy to stop the construction of proposed new power plants in North Bergen in the Meadowlands and along the Musconetcong River in the Highlands. And he urged the governor to do more to expand the use of electric cars in New Jersey, including by the addition of charging stations to make it feasible to drive electric vehicles longer distances.

Hajna said the state is working to improve air quality. “New Jersey has been doing this on many fronts — having tough air standards for power plants and industries, California car emissions standards for vehicles sold in the state, programs to reduce diesel emissions, and programs promoting more use of electric vehicles,” he said. “The quality of our air is important to all of us.”