EPA ruling means cleaner air for New Jerseyans

By James Ahearn
Copyright 1998 Bergen County Record
September 30, 1998

New Jersey got some good news last week, very good news. The federal Environmental Protection Agency ruled that Midwestern states must sharply reduce their emissions of smog-producing chemicals.

Most of these emissions are generated by coal-powered electricity-generating plants. The most efficient way to reduce the emissions, therefore, is to get the plants to install modern pollution-control equipment.

The plants have resisted this because it will be costly. The governments of the states served by the plants have resisted it too.

Until last week the plants and the states had succeeded, because their own region met federal clean-air standards.

How could this be? How could the air in the Midwest stay reasonably clean while the region's power plants were pumping nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere? The answer is that the prevailing wind east of the Mississippi is from the west. The utilities built extra-tall smokestacks, so tall that pollutants were carried out of the region hundreds of miles to the east, to New Jersey and other Northeastern states.

New Jersey's air is cleaner than it used to be, but federal environmental standards have been tightened. In the summer, when the sun bakes airborne pollutants, our air often flunks the new standards.

Achieving compliance will be hard enough without the extra burden of pollutants drifting in from states like Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Missouri.

These four will now have to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions by a third or more. The same federal standard applies to New Jersey, but because utilities here have been installing pollution-control equipment, the remaining reduction to be achieved is only 9 percent of the total emitted.

As I say, it is good news for the environment in the Garden State, and good news for the state's economy. The decision by the EPA administrator, Carol Browner, which applies to 22 states in all, was warranted but it did require intestinal fortitude. No matter which way she ruled, she and her superiors were going to take flak.

Sure enough, the governor of Ohio, George Voinovich, lost no time denouncing the decision. It was heavy-handed, he said, and punitive.

Neither charge holds water. But something else he said bears thinking about:"Ohioans should be outraged that the EPA is not enforcing the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act in many of the Northeastern states that are blaming us for their air-quality problems.

"Some of those same states have delayed imposing air-pollution control requirements on their own industries and vehicles, preferring instead to blame the Midwest."

He singled out New Jersey and New York for criticism. He did have a point. New Jersey, for example, has taken eons to install a new, stringent emission test for automobiles.

That project seems to be on track now, but problems can be expected before the new test machines are up and running smoothly. It will take gumption and persistence to see the project through.

As for the federal smog decision, it is rare for state bureaucrats and corporate executives to be praised these days, but praise is due to one of each in New Jersey. They are state Environmental Commissioner Robert Shinn and Lawrence Codey, president of Public Service Electric and Gas. Each pressed effectively for the 22-state smog standards adopted by the EPA.

Shinn did it because it was the right thing for New Jersey. Codey did it because it was the right thing for Public Service. As the market in electricity was edging toward deregulation and national competition was about to begin, Public Service and other New Jersey utilities faced a forbidding prospect. Midwestern power plants could crank out more coal-fired electricity for sale cheap to Northeastern consumers, the very people forced to breath smoggy air as a result.

What was needed was a level playing field for the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. Shinn and Codey helped achieve it. Good for them, and for us.

Misguided activism. Elsewhere on the environmental front, garbage- incinerator opponents are opposing a statewide proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot. The referendum, Question 3, seeks voter approval to relieve several counties from paying back $ 103 million in loans the state granted them to help build five big incinerators. The proposal also calls for the state to pay $ 50 million to counties that did not build incinerators. The money would help these counties repay funds borrowed for landfills and transfer stations.

The counties that built incinerators, at state insistence, spent $ 1.6 billion on them. They floated bonds to do it. When federal courts ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to require towns to send trash to the burners, the economic rationale for incinerators collapsed. The state, which is to say all of us, has a moral obligation to somehow resolve this crisis, for that is what it is.

The incinerator opponents seem to want the counties to default on their bonds. The incinerators were all built to modern standards and are subject to constant monitoring to ensure their emissions are innocuous.

The opponents reject these assurances. They proffer anecdotal information about ailments afflicting people living near the incinerators.

Now the activists have another complaint. They say the communities in which incinerators were built are poorly educated and low-income.

They claim class discrimination. What I say is,"Nuff said." The incinerators are concrete-and-steel reality. Somebody has to pay for them. It would be irresponsible for the counties to default, and irresponsible for the state to allow it to happen. The right vote on Question 3 is yes.

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