Home > Uncategorized > U.S. EPA to Investigate Why Key Air Monitor Went Offline for Nearly Three Days During Bridgegate

U.S. EPA to Investigate Why Key Air Monitor Went Offline for Nearly Three Days During Bridgegate

[Intro note just to clarify the misleading headline in Star Ledger followup story: Per our request and EPA IG referral, EPA DID investigate the DEP monitoring station and found no problems from a regulatory perspective or violations of NAAQS, although they did not respond to all the questions we raised and their response evaded the basic question about whether people at the street level in Ft. Lee were exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution and whether the EPA/DEP monitoring network is capable of answering these kind of questions. ]

Update #4 – 11 pm – This will take a full post to explain, but in the meantime, here’s what a Rutgers professor said about the monitoring station in question:(link to story)

They’re missing data for 2 1/2 days – that’s weird,” says Ann Marie Carlton, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who studies air quality.

I was really, really shocked when I saw there was no data. You might see a monitor go offline for a day because they’re cleaning it or doing maintenance or calibration, but for it go down for this many days is intriguing.

Here what other experts said about the distance issue:

Thurston, Pope and others cautioned against reading too much into the monitor’s data.

“[Pollutant] concentrations get diluted pretty fast as you get away from the sources,” Rutgers environmental science professor Barbara Turpin says, arguing that the high PM2.5 levels measured by the Jersey City and Newark monitors, sitting so far from the George Washington Bridge, do not necessarily show the pollution levels being generated by the traffic jam.

Still, Carlton says, the only apparent change in the area from Sept. 9 to 12 was the traffic jam.

“If we think about what emits particles – Burger King, other industries like that – there was no new Burger King that started operating and caused that to happen,” she says. “But we know that particles can come from cars, and that’s the only thing that happened that was different.” – end update]

Update # 3 2/28/14 – 5 pm – Just got a reply from EPA Region 2 – According to EPA, although PM 2.5 pollution levels increased significantly in the area during the week of Bridgegate, there was no air quality problem with respect to PM 2.5 NAAQS compliance (no mention of ozone, or local “hot spot” ambient conditions) and NJ DEP is in compliance with EPA monitoring requirements (and no explanation of why monitoring station was inoperable or whether NJ DEP notified EPA or was required to notify EPA) full EPA reply available upon request, I have as a pdf – no link yet):

* We were in error and stand corrected on one point – the down monitoring station was NOT “closest to the GWB” as we stated. There are closer stations, including one in Ft. Lee. However, the Ft. Lee monitoring station is NOT listed in DEP website air monitoring network, so I had no way of knowing that. Second, we based the “closest:” claim on a priorJan. 22, 2014  national news report.

Update # 2 – there are legitimate questions and criticisms that the monitoring device was 11 – 12 miles away in Jersey City and could not havedetected the GWB traffic emissions. My understanding is that mobile source dispersion models rarely extend beyond 1,000 meters to measure impacts. I never claimed that the monitoring device was designed to detect GWB emission, but only  that it was the closest monitoring device to GWB – and it could have shown some regional impact, depending on conditions.

[Note: it was hot the week of 9/9/13, so regional ozone formation from mobile source emissions at GWB is a definite possibility. But the Jersey City FH monitoring station only measured PM 2.5 (fine particulate) not ozone.]

My response: 1) no doubt that ground level “hot spots” existed (in Ft. Lee where kids were stuck in traffic) exceeded EPA health based NAAQS for criteria pollutants, mostly like PM 2.5, CO, and perhaps ozone.; 2) DEP uses a statewide monitoring network that measures regional, not local, air quality conditions. Depending on the weather (i.e. hot sumer day) some of the pollutants from the mobile sources is regional and forms ozone – don’t recall what the weather was like on 9/11/13. ; 3) If local hot spots exist, NJ DEP’s monitoring network fails to detect them. ,Yet DEP still relies on  this network as “representative” of Statewide conditions when demonstrating compliance with NAAQS. So, DEP can’t have it both ways by saying the Jersey CIty station could not have detected GWB emissions yet also saying the Jersey CIty station reflects representative local and regional conditions – bottom line: we need more monitoring devices that more accurately detect “local hot spots”.


This is either just an amazing coincidence or evidence of an attempt to coverup the impacts of the GWB lane closures.

But even if it had nothing to do with Bridgegate, EPA should have been notified about the situation, because continuous air monitoring is required under the federal Clean Air Act.

We filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General because DEP refused to provide an explanation and referred media inquiries to the Governor’s Office.

DEP is solely responsible for operating the State air monitoring network, so they should have provided a straightforward explanation about why the monitoring station was down – very odd for them to refer a strictly technical matter like this to the Gov. Office.

But, again, there is an explanation – it is possible that the Gov. Office issued a State government wide order that all media inquiries about the GWB scandal be referred to the Gov. press Office.

Let’s see if EPA can get a better answer from DEP than the media did – we’ll keep you posted.   From our friends at PEER:

Press Release

For Immediate Release:  Thursday, February 27, 2014

Contact:  Bill Wolfe (609) 397-4861; Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Who Turned Off Air Pollution Monitor During Bridge Closure?

U.S. EPA to Investigate Why Key Air Monitor Went Offline for Nearly Three Days

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 on the bridge 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.”


Read the complaint to the EPA IG

See IG reply

View federal requirement that monitors must be continually operating

Look at health concerns with particulates

Learn more about ambient air monitoring

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


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