I’m from New Jersey
I don’t expect too much
If the world ended today
I would adjust
— “I’m From New Jersey,” by John Gorka
I grew up in New Jersey on what the Lenni-Lenape (the Delaware Indians) referred to as “First Mountain.” To the east, between my boyhood home and New York Harbor, is a concentrated area with a polluted history — places like Perth Amboy, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Secaucus, The Meadowlands — called “The Cancer Belt” by some and “Home” to oil refineries, chemical factories, power plants, and other very heavy industries. Companies, products, and fortunes that helped build this country originated here — a highly populated region with a toxic legacy. To the west, beyond my idyllic backyard of the South Mountain Reservation, was suburban and rural New Jersey — more farms than factories. Traveling through both these parts of the “Garden State” fill my childhood memories: Eastward to visit my grandparents and extended family, and the culture of the “City That Never Sleeps”; westward for summer day camp, fresh summer corn, and a slower pace of life. A trip into the city meant holding your breath at various points along the way. A journey into the country allowed one to breathe deeply. The woods of the Reservation were the dividing line. That is where I lived as a boy.
Pittsburghers of a certain age remember this region’s history of pollution, mostly from smokestacks spewing black soot from steel mills and power plants. An area saturated with heavy industries which also built much of what we recognize today as “American,” southwestern Pennsylvania has a toxic legacy as well. Yet these two places — northeast New Jersey and southwest Pennsylvania — are very different. While the New York Metropolitan area has made strides to clean up its act regarding air pollution, the Pittsburgh Metro area still has a way to go.
In the American Lung Association’s just-published State of the Air — 2016 report, the Pittsburgh area’s grades were worse compared to industrial New Jersey’s in 2 out of 3 measurements, ranking 14th-worst in the nation for short-term particle pollution and #8 for year-round particle pollution. Ozone pollution in Allegheny, Washington, and other counties surrounding Pittsburgh is a bit better than NY/NJ/CT counties (14th-worst in the United States for NY/NJ/CT vs. 26th-worst for the Pittsburgh Tri-state area), but southwest Pennsylvania counties still earn “F’s” on their ozone air quality report cards.
Why is the Pittsburgh region’s air quality so poor today? After all, the steel mills are gone, replaced by high-tech industries. This area is far less populated, far more rural and more forested than industrial New Jersey ever was. There are several factors that help explain this paradox.
- Geography — Just upwind and to our west is Ohio, an industrial state with prodigious emissions that come from numerous coal-fired power plants, aggressive oil and natural gas development in the eastern part of the state, and other heavy industries.
- Topography — The mountains, hills, and plateaus of western Pennsylvania make it more likely for air pollution from near and far to settle in the nooks-and-crannies of the hill and river valleys, where it is less likely to be blown away.
- “High-tech” doesn’t necessarily mean low pollution. It does mean, however, that particles emitted by modern factories are smaller in size — much smaller — than the particles that darkened the Pittsburgh skies and blackened faces and façades back in the day. High-tech particle sizes are “fine” — 2.5 microns and less. (By contrast, the smallest grain of sand is about 90 microns; the diameter of a shaft of hair is about 70 microns.) Fine (PM2.5) and ultrafine (0.1 micron) particulate matter are small enough to get through to our smallest airways and gain entry into our bloodstream through the alveolar air sacs.
- Rural doesn’t mean no industry. Southwestern Pennsylvania is highly industrial, with plenty of factories and coal-fired and gas-fired power plants that are fully operational. And Pennsylvania is (and always has been) a leading energy-producing state. Bituminous coal was first mined in Pennsylvania on Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington in the late 1700s. The first modern oil well was drilled in Titusville in 1859. The first natural gas well to be fracked occurred in Mt. Pleasant Township, Washington County in 2005, even though conventional natural gas wells have been producing (and leaking) methane for more than a century in Pennsylvania.
There is no doubt in my mind that unconventional natural gas development has brought a slice of industrial New Jersey to idyllic southwestern Pennsylvania. Extracting natural gas is a heavy industrial process that begins with deforestation and clearing of land for well pads. Drilling deep underground, and then hydraulically fracturing methane-rich shale with huge volumes of freshwater, chemicals, and sand (a.k.a. “fracking”) under very high pressure, brings up toxic materials from the depths of Earth’s crust that aerosolize into the air we breathe, and spill into the water we drink and soil in which we grow our food. Pipelines course throughout the region and leak inadvertently, are vented on purpose, and as we were reminded several days ago, explode. Gigantic compressor stations are needed to move the fracked products along the pipelines to processing plants and transportation centers, producing enormous volumes of airborne toxics from carbon fuel combustion and scheduled “blowdowns.” And throughout the entirety of the process, vast diesel exhaust emissions result from teeming truck traffic that fills interstate highways, state and county roads, local and residential streets, and vehicle staging (idling) areas — all of this happening 24/7/365.
Tolerating some amount of air pollution is the price we pay for living in the comfortable modern world. We’ve looked before at the problem of air pollution and how much it sickens and kills. For the rest of this week on The PediaBlog, we’ll take a look at why all of us should care.