Report shows decline in NJ’s toxic releases, but is it enough?

The numbers are lower, but it hardly feels like good news: 6 million pounds of toxic chemicals released into New Jersey’s air and water in 2017, according to a new EPA report. About 15 years ago it was as high as 20 million pounds a year, but that’s not much of a consolation for residents who live near one of New Jersey’s worst polluters, the Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery in Linden.

“As soon as you step in this area you notice the smell, and it is concerning,” said Cherri Harris, a Linden resident. “I have an 11-year-old, and I do have concerns because you don’t know what it is. And he’ll be concerned sometimes, he’ll look up and say ‘Mom, something’s on fire.’ And we’re like, ‘No, those are just the chemicals burning over there.'”

Harris says their neighborhood doesn’t have much capacity to fight for cleaner air.

“We live in a very low-income neighborhood, so we’re advocating for food, and shelter and everything else. I don’t believe we can get to the point where we’re able to advocate for the smells or the chemicals that are released in the air,” she said.

The Bayway Refinery contributes nearly half of New Jersey’s toxic emissions. Paulsboro Refining Company in Gloucester County and Chemours Chamber Works in Salem County are next in line, according to the report. The communities around them are suffering, says environmentalist Jeff Tittel.

“Those communities are still choking on all the toxic chemicals in the environment. We see that in communities like Newark, where more than a third of the children have asthma. We see it with high cancer rates along the corridor in certain areas, as well,” said Tittel, who serves as director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Some of the most harmful chemicals include nitrate compounds that can cause cancer in humans and kill marine life. Some can cause brain damage, hearing and vision loss, dizziness and loss of muscle control, and damage to the respiratory system.

New Jersey ranks among the worst states in the nation for toxic releases per square mile. Nationally, deregulation by the Trump administration has rolled back restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. Since Gov. Phil Murphy took office, clean energy has been a priority of his administration.

“I think what the governor is doing, promoting renewable energy, is good. Building offshore windmills is critical to help reduce pollution, providing that we also make sure that we stop some of these power plants that are being proposed right now that are going to increase the greenhouse gases in New Jersey by about 30 percent,” Tittel said.

The state has filed over a dozen “environmental justice” lawsuits — cases that address pollution disproportionately affecting minority and low-income communities. And last week, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal brought suit once again against ExxonMobil. The state settled with ExxonMobil for $225 million in 2015. The decision was controversial because that was a fraction of the original $8.9 billion the state was seeking.

In his first budget Murphy allocated just $50 million to the Clean Energy Fund, a move that drew criticism from environmentalists.

“We would like to see all the Clean Energy Funds go for clean energy because it helps reduce pollution and creates jobs,” Tittel said.

The first draft of Murphy’s budget does allocate more money to the Clean Energy Fund than last year, but at this stage in the budget process, it’s just too early to know where those numbers will end up.

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