Trenton — Through most of the period when lane closures on the George Washington Bridge ordered by associates of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were in effect, the federally required air quality monitor closest to the bridge was inoperative. At the request of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Inspector General (IG) has opened an inquiry into who and what was behind the shutdown of the measuring device as thousands of vehicles idled for hours on the busiest motor-vehicle bridge in the world.
The closure of local access lanes on the George Washington Bridge for traffic entering from Fort Lee and the surrounding communities lasted from the morning of September 9, 2013 through the 13th. On the night of September 8th and continuing for the next two-and-half days, the air quality monitor operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) closest to the bridge ceased reporting data about the level of particulates in the air. DEP has not issued an explanation for this outage, instead referring media calls to Gov. Christie’s press office.
These air pollution monitoring devices are required under the federal Clean Air Act and their use by state agencies takes place under regulations overseen by EPA. Their purpose is to measure the amount of diesel, oil and other fuel particles in the air. These particles are so small that they penetrate the deepest recesses of the lungs and are linked to asthma, other respiratory diseases and premature death.
Federal regulations require that these air pollution monitors operate continuously except for “routine maintenance” or “instrument calibration” without permission from EPA. This particular monitor, located on top of a Jersey City firehouse, had previously experienced only very short outages.
“Public health safeguards, like pollution monitors, should be off-limits to political manipulation,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “Perhaps there is an innocent explanation for marooning thousands in a pollution Twilight Zone but no one in the Christie administration has yet to offer one.”
Readings from other monitors, as well as the shuttered monitor once it came back online, suggest that air quality reached unhealthy levels during the closure. Particulate readings on the reopened monitor were more than twice the level it recorded before it was shut off.
Children are especially susceptible to lung damage from particulates. Yet when one Christie official expressed concern about schoolchildren trapped in traffic for hours, David Wildstein, a Christie-appointed Port Authority official, emailed in response: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
“This extended outage masked the health effects on those stuck on the bridge enduring hours of exhaust from idling vehicles,” Wolfe added. “This act literally added injury to insult.”
PEER filed its request for investigation with the IG on January 31. In a letter dated February 11, 2014, Special Agent Clay Brown, the IG “Hotline Manager,” indicated that EPA Region 2, which is supposed to oversee the Clean Air Act program in New Jersey, had been tasked with conducting an initial “review” and “Following this review, a determination will be made as to the most appropriate course of action.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability