With air quality already suffering in NJ, energy projects threaten to make it worse

Despite fewer cars on the road last year, New Jersey averaged 46 days of high air pollution, according to a report from Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and the NJPIRG Law & Policy Center.

The report tracked air pollution data from the Environmental Protection Agency around the state. Both air particulate and ozone levels were tracked; particulate pollution is solid or liquid matter in the air (dust, soot, combustion byproducts, etc.) and ground-level ozone is caused by  a combination of pollutants and heat from sunlight. Both are quite bad for humans, especially those who face prolonged exposure. 

“Exposure to ozone and particulate matter pollution that’s produced has been linked to premature death; damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems; diminished mental health and neural functioning; problems with fertility, pregnancy and birth; and increased risk of many types of cancer,” said Catherine Chen, hospitalist and assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “These effects are particularly detrimental to children. For example, today in Newark nearly one in four children have asthma—a rate three times higher than the national average.”

A coalition of advocacy groups and concerned community members are coming together in Newark next month (Nov. 10) to protest two proposed facilities that would likely exacerbate air quality issues: the Aires sludge plant and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PSVC) power plant. PSVC is proposing a gas-fired power plant; part of a resiliency proposal in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The Aires plant, meanwhile, would burn biofuels (sludge from landfills) and turn it into energy.

Both plants run counter to the state’s focus on switching entirely to clean energy (biofuels emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned). Said Emma Horst-Martz, advocate with the NJPIRG Law & Policy Center, in the release of the report: “Though we’ve made progress toward cleaner air, we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels to make lasting improvements. Air pollution is making people sick.”

The report also tracked bad air days across the country: More than 70% of the U.S. population was exposed to greater than a month’s worth of elevated levels of ozone or particulate pollution. Of course, global warming has made the situation worse: hotter temperatures create more days where ground-level ozone is possible, and the increase in wildfires has led to more days with particulates in the air. (Fires from the American West made it all the way across the country this year.)

Like everything that deals with global warming and changing human behavior, solutions are tricky. But there are some ways identified in the report to try to lower the number of high air pollution days. First, we ought to end new fossil fuel projects, like the ones in Newark mentioned above. Second, lawmakers at the state and federal levels could invest in truly green energy projects; there’s an opportunity in the infrastructure bill that’s currently being negotiated.

“This new report is very troubling, we are clearly at a tipping point in our country, climate change is here, and we are seeing its very real consequences every day,” said Congressman Andy Kim in a statement: “We need to make big investments now that will create thousands of jobs here in New Jersey and provide a cleaner, safer environment for us, our kids, and generations to come.”

We could also electrify the transportation sector (that’d go a long, long way), incentivize private transitions to renewable energy, and strengthen air quality standards.