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From the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

One of Heather Cooke’s favorite meals is a fresh garden salad. But finding the ingredients for the dish in her Hamilton neighborhood isn’t easy.

The nearest ShopRite is a 15-minute drive. When Cooke’s aging Ford is in the shop, as it was in June, she can take two NJ Transit buses to the supermarket and haul her bags home.

There are plenty of fast food joints and a small grocery store within walking distance. But the produce prices are “outrageously expensive,” said Cooke, 44.

Welcome to the desert.

Cooke’s neighborhood on the Hamilton-Trenton border is one of 134 “food deserts” in New Jersey, according to the federal government. They are mostly low-income pockets of big cities, sprawling suburbs and small towns that lack easy access to a supermarket but are usually brimming with expensive convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

Experts say food deserts are the equivalent of nutritional wastelands, where families who can’t afford to hunt down fresh food are often left to subside on Slurpees, Big Macs and calorie-laden packaged foods. Studies show food desert residents are more likely to be obese and spend a greater percentage of their time and income shopping for meals.

“There’s food in these communities,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow and research director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s just expensive food, or not particularly healthy food.”

More than 340,000 New Jerseyans — or about 4 percent of the state’s population — live in food deserts and have limited access to supermarkets, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The areas, which dot the map from Sussex County to Cape May, include some obvious food wastelands, including an industrial section of Newark near the New Jersey Turnpike and a sparsely populated stretch near the Bayonne port that is far from any shopping centers.

But other Garden State food deserts are more surprising: Nearly a third of Carteret in Middlesex County. A large portion of Manville in Somerset County. A swath of Piscataway near Rutgers University. Relatively upscale sections of Parsippany in Morris County and Margate on the Jersey Shore.

South Jersey fared the worst in the federal study released this spring. Researchers found 83 food deserts in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, accounting for more than 60 percent of the state’s total. Experts say less populated areas, like portions of South Jersey, are difficult for shoppers because they lack both large supermarkets and the mass transportation needed to get to far-away stores.

Another report issued last year by a nonprofit group says New Jersey’s food desert problem is even worse that the federal government estimates. The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that researches urban issues, concluded more than 924,000 Garden State residents — or more than 10 percent of the population — lack adequate access to supermarkets offering fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products.

Though they may have never heard of the term food desert, many residents in affected areas know their access to food is limited.

With no car and no affordable grocery store within walking distance of his Hamilton apartment, John Korrow relies on his two sisters to give him a ride to a supermarket in a neighboring town every few weeks.

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From The New York Times:

You might say Sen. Frank Lautenberg wants to be the grandfather of chemical regulation.

The New Jersey Democrat emotes the aura of a grandfather — so much so that even his staff pays him a reverence that goes beyond what senators typically receive from their aides.

And, like most grandfathers, Lautenberg is particularly concerned with children’s health. His eyes light up when asked about how chemicals in the environment or in day-to-day products may pose risks to children.

The 87-year-old lawmaker quickly rattles off statistics such as 5 percent of pediatric cancers, 10 percent of cognition problems in newborns and 30 percent of asthmatics are likely caused by chemical exposures. Not to mention possible links to rising autism rates.

Those statistics, Lautenberg said during a recent interview with E&E Daily in his Senate office, led him to become the chief advocate for reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — the nation’s only law for regulating chemicals.

“When you looked at TSCA and saw a piece of legislation that had almost no interest or no attention, I thought that was outrageous,” Lautenberg said. “I see families come to the Capitol. This week it was a group with diabetes. You see hundreds of kids sitting out there — not that their condition is necessarily tied to chemical presences — but when you see these children and you see the affliction that is put on them by something. That’s what gets us going.”

There is only one problem: Lautenberg’s numerous efforts at reforming TSCA so far have all failed.

But that is not stopping Lautenberg from trying again this year. The Democrat has introduced the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2011,” (S. 847 (pdf)) which calls for a seismic shift in the way chemicals are regulated by placing the burden on manufacturers to prove a chemical is safe before it goes on the market.

Talking to Lautenberg, who has served in the Senate twice — dating back to 1983 — you cannot help but get the distinct impression that the Democrat only has a few more fights left in him. After all, his term ends in 2014, when he will be 90.

But this year Lautenberg appears more likely to get something done from his perch as chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Subcommittee. He notably began holding stakeholder meetings on the issue with Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) recently — signaling the possibility of Republican support that has never existed before — and says this year may be different (E&E Daily, June 15).

“We’ve got ourselves in position,” he said. “Persistence is our mantra. We keep chipping away at it.”

Lautenberg’s resilience on the issue has made him a hero to environmental groups who say that the 1976 law, the country’s only major environmental statute to never receive a congressional update, is woefully inadequate. Such groups say that for Lautenberg — who has had such accomplishments as banning smoking from airplanes — TSCA reform has become his holy grail, his legacy.

“He’s really been dogged,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “This is a guy who has really been a courageous public health champion and this would be the environmental crown on his career.”

Family motivation

Lautenberg’s dedication to TSCA reform is deeply rooted in personal terms.

Many years ago, Lautenberg’s sister Marian Rosenstadt was diagnosed with asthma. She had a machine in her car, he said, that helped her during attacks.

At a school board meeting in Rye, N.Y., she felt such an attack coming on. She rushed out to her car but did not make it in time, passing out near the parking lot.

Three days later, she died at the hospital. She was 53 years old.

Lautenberg also has 13 grandchildren, some of whom have similar afflictions. One has severe asthma, another has diabetes.

“When you know how devastating some of these conditions can be, and you can prevent it …” he said, before his voice broke up slightly.

Lautenberg grew up poor, the son of Eastern European immigrants. His father died of cancer when Lautenberg was still a teenager. After serving in World War II, he went to Columbia University on the GI bill — and later started a successful paycheck processing company. One of the richest members of Congress, he has never forgotten where he came from — or the role government can play in improving people’s lives.

“I see lots of little children here,” he went on. “I love every one of these little ones. I’d like to see them healthy. … If I want my grandchildren to breathe clean air, I have to get everyone’s grandchildren to breathe clean air. Those are the fundamentals that move me along.”

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From NJ.com:

Piles Creek is an offshoot of the Arthur Kill — a dead-end waterway that stops in an industrial no-man’s-land in Linden.

To the west is the rumbling New Jersey Turnpike and a cluster of puffing smokestacks. To the north a horizon of power lines and refineries. To the east and south factories and a brownfield.

And what lives here is not quite normal — a strange ecosystem of creatures large and small that seem cast from a bad toxic apocalypse movie.

Grass shrimp and fiddler crabs are larger, and tend to thrive — even though they eat less. In fact, they are not eaten as much themselves.

Their predators, like killifish and bluefish, are smaller, more sluggish and can’t hunt as well — perhaps because their thyroid glands and neurotransmitters are abnormal.

The blue crabs are sluggish and feeding on easily-available food like algae and sediments. But they are also hardier when exposed to toxicity and more savvy at avoiding predators — even becoming nasty and aggressive when provoked.

“It’s a tough neighborhood to grow up in — that’s the way we thought of it in the lab,” said Rutgers University marine biologist Judith Weis, a 70-year-old grandmother of three who has spent the past two decades documenting the creek’s slow recovery since the beginnings of the environmental movement.

For most of the 20th century, wildlife at Piles Creek had no chance to survive. Weis once saw no life in the brackish water, which is still contaminated by mercury, other metals and a whole mess of acronyms, including PAHs and PCBs. Even now, a bridge of gas and oil pipelines runs over the water, marked with neon stakes. A sign warns trespassers of danger.

Over time, though, the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections since the 1960s have slowly brought life back to Piles Creek. But the recovery has left a toxic legacy — a strange process caused by heavy industry, according to Weis.

Her team from Rutgers meticulously documented five species’ transformations. The food chain was in disarray. She said pollution has created its own variety of unnatural effects on the creatures in Linden and Newark Bay, compared with their counterparts in the cleaner waters of Tuckerton some 80 miles to the south.

The team found healthy creatures introduced into the tainted environment were immediately affected. Blue crabs and killifish from Tuckerton lost their innate hunting abilities when they were put into the polluted water.

“If a predator is worse off than you are, it’s an advantage,” Weis noted.

Despite the slow comeback of Piles Creek, it remains an ecological war zone. Lauren Bergey, a student of Weis’s who is now an assistant biology professor at Centenary College, said she once saw a male fiddler crab waving his huge claw atop a Thermos bottle, trying to attract a mate. He had made his burrow inside the container, she said.

“I still do work out there, and when I come back, I smell like an oil refinery,” Bergey said.

The Rutgers study is unique in that pollution-effects studies most often just examine the effects of poisons by dosing specimens in the laboratory, the researchers said.

“I’m hoping this leads to more research out in the field, instead of just exposing species to the contaminants in the lab,” said Weis, who wrapped up decades of observations of the return of life to the polluted water in a study published last month in BioScience.

Weis — who is chair of the science advisory board of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, has served on committees for the Environmental Protection Agency, and is currently writing about water for the United Nations — believes the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections since the 1960s have brought life back to Piles Creek and other places. Yet she said the environmental threats remain.

“The current regulations are allowing really dreadful places like Piles Creek become better,” she said. “However, it will take a lot more effort, money and stronger regulations — and a lot of years — for them to really become healthy environments.”


From The Morning Call:

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For years, New Jersey has struggled to get Pennsylvania to consider its neighbor’s air in enforcing emission standards, a situation that has allowed some coal-powered plants to operate without scrubbers for decades.

And for just as long, New Jersey officials and activists say, Pennsylvania has thumbed its nose at its neighbor, who has labored mightily to meet federal standards for sulfur dioxide and other pollutants.

Federal records show Pennsylvania has more than 80 fossil-fuel power plants, several of which produce prodigious amounts of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant shown to aggravate asthma.

Yet westerly winds blow a sizable portion of the contaminant over the Delaware River into New Jersey, leaving Pennsylvania’s skies and the consciences of its lawmakers clear.

As a result, Pennsylvania regulators have been slow to push upgrades of outmoded power plants, officials and activists say — including the Portland Generating Station in Northampton County, now the subject of a federal review.

“States and state legislators are often very parochial in their outlook: ‘It’s not affecting our state, so it’s not a big deal,'” said Frank Kuserk, a professor of biological sciences at Moravian College. “That’s why you need regional and national cooperation.”

Sulfur dioxide is a jack-of-all-trades pollutant. Inhaled, it aggravates asthma and can cause respiratory diseases like emphysema and bronchitis. Combined with other contaminants and water vapor, it falls from the sky as acid rain. Over long distances, it often clumps together with other pollutants, forming tiny particles that can cause breathing problems.

It’s also easily controlled using scrubber systems, though not necessarily cheaply. Federal officials recommend two basic techniques, featuring components like mist eliminators and vacuum filters.

But the 53-year-old Portland plant doesn’t have any such controls. Neither do a number of other Pennsylvania plants, lawsuits contend. When pressed, Portland plant owner GenOn Energy always says the same thing: The state never told us to upgrade.

GenOn officials wrote in 2010 annual financial filings that installing scrubbers at older coal plants is economically unfeasible. Cost estimates to bring Portland into compliance have run as high as $300 million.

But when Maryland enforced stricter sulfur dioxide rules in 2009, GenOn agreed to install pollution control at three plants in that state, reducing emissions by more than 80 percent, according to the filings. Pennsylvania hasn’t enforced similar rules.

That riles New Jersey, which has failed to meet federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide in one county and for certain particulates in more than 10. Warren County has failed to meet both ozone and sulfur dioxide standards for eight years straight.

Fed up — and with federal rules growing ever stricter — the Garden State filed a complaint with the EPA last year under a “good neighbor” clause of the federal Clean Air Act, written to protect eastern states from pollution blown cross-country from the Midwest.

In this case, officials say the coal-fired plant just south of Portland along the Delaware River produces more sulfur dioxide than all of New Jersey’s coal plants combined, befouling the air in four counties.

Earlier this year, the EPA agreed to consider a petition to enforce stricter sulfur dioxide standards against the plant. Public comment ended June 13, with a federal decision coming this fall.

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New Jersey says it has no choice but to take the matter to court.

“If we have to be a bit tough toward our neighbor, we will be,” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said. “The plants we are now litigating against, we wish they would have already been through state rules and regulations and have had pollution controls in place.”

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