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Whitman urged to be tougher on air quality


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Related Story: "millions of people in New Jersey and much of the Northeast are breathing a toxic stew of unhealthy air that can increase the chances of getting cancer"

Whitman urged to be tougher on air quality

Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Trenton Bureau

As state officials search for ways to reduce the amount of cancer-causing pollutants in New Jersey's air, environmentalists said Tuesday that the Whitman administration could begin by revisiting a proposal it rejected four years ago.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, in the waning days of the Florio administration, proposed a regulation that would have required hundreds of industrial facilities that emit hazardous air pollutants to conduct air-quality modeling and risk assessments.

Such assessments can estimate the health risk posed to neighbors, and force facilities to alter the location and height of their emission stacks, change raw materials, or reduce emissions, the DEP said at the time.

"The department's proactive policy regarding risk assessment for hazardous air contaminants was developed because New Jersey has many communities located in close proximity to industrialized areas of the state," the department wrote in September 1993.

But the DEP scrapped the proposal, and instead adopted regulations in September 1995 that made the risk assessments voluntary. Not one facility has volunteered to do a model or risk assessment, state officials acknowledge.

"Nobody has used the program; that tells me the program doesn't work and that industry hasn't made the voluntary reduction," said Bill Wolfe, a policy analyst with the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter.

The renewed interest in the proposal comes on the heels of a report in The Sunday Record that found millions of people in New Jersey and much of the Northeast are breathing a toxic stew of unhealthy air that can increase the chances of getting cancer.

With the help of a computer mapping program, The Record analyzed data generated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently modeled the concentrations of 148 hazardous air pollutants throughout the country.

The analysis found that residents of North Jersey and other urbanized parts of the state are exposed to as many as 30 toxic chemicals in concentrations that exceed cancer benchmarks.

Although a significant share of airborne toxic substances comes from motor vehicles, environmentalists say industry should not be let off the hook.

"In New Jersey, there are a large number of small facilities very closely located to residential neighborhoods," Wolfe said. "We have greatest population density and greatest density of toxics use in the country."

Wolfe said the DEP missed an opportunity to reduce industrial emissions of toxic substances by watering down the proposed risk assessment regulation four years ago.

When the DEP, under the Whitman administration, re-proposed the air pollution control regulations in March 1995, it made the modeling and risk assessments voluntary for most existing facilities.

The DEP sided with industry, which vehemently opposed the models and risk assessment for existing facilities and claimed it would be too burdensome and costly. At the time, the DEP was in the process of streamlining regulations to create a more business-friendly climate at Governor Whitman's direction.

In an interview, DEP Commissioner Robert Shinn said the requirement to do risk assessments would have been a "Draconian" burden on business.

"We've got to find as much as possible a level playing field for business and industry," Shinn said. "That's one of the areas we're struggling to achieve."

The Sierra Club has been lobbying for legislation to make the models and risk assessments mandatory for facilities that use certain types and amounts of hazardous air pollutants.

Assemblyman Charles "Ken" Zisa, D-Hackensack, is drafting the legislation and is expected to introduce it as early as Monday, his chief of staff said. As a member of the minority party, however, Zisa will have a difficult time rallying support for his bill in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The chemical industry, which objected to the regulatory proposal, is opposed to basing emissions of hazardous air pollutants on models and risk assessments.

"A risk assessment is a model, it's not real science," said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council, a lobbying group for the industry. "A risk assessment tells you something, but not enough to make judgments and decisions. Once you do a risk assessment, how does your behavior change?"

The DEP does require risk assessments, but only for municipal waste and hazardous waste incinerators, coal-fired power generating facilities, and cogeneration units.

The DEP also does its own screening using a more simplistic risk assessment for new facilities or ones that are looking to update their permits.

But the number of permits evaluated in any given year is a "very small subset" of the total, said Joann Held, a scientist with the DEP. Additionally, the DEP does not look at the risk posed by the entire facility, but just the one process that's being changed.

Held said the program is not what the DEP had envisioned when the agency initially proposed the regulations in 1993.

"With this program, we've been nibbling away at the problem and checking to make sure that we don't issue permits for something that could do harm," Held said. "But it's not as sweeping as what we had in mind."

The Sunday Record's initial installment of "The Air We Breathe," which includes a graphic illustration of the number of chemicals throughout New Jersey that exceed the acceptable cancer risk, can be found at

Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp.
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