The public conversation about environmentalism has picked up steam in recent years as more empirical data emerges about the negative consequences of energy consumption and natural resource depletion. The issue is global and ideological. What is our human responsibility to other living organisms? How can humans advance technologically and socially without harming our ecosystems? These questions are being asked, even as the United Nations released a report last week indicating that one million plant and animal species face extinction as a result of human activity. Humans rely on many of these species for survival.
Here in Bayonne, the most pressing issue under local control is the overflow of untreated sewage into surrounding waters. The Bayonne Community News has covered the topic and will continue to. The other issue, just as pressing, is in the air we breathe.
Surrounded by ports and industry, Bayonne air is polluted with harmful carbon emissions coming from cars, trucks, and ships.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector makes up 29 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. Electricity generation, such as the burning of coal and natural gas, makes up 28 percent; industry, 22 percent; commercial and residential structures, 12 percent; and agriculture, 9 percent.
According to the American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air Report, Hudson County received an “F” grade for air quality along with several other counties in the state. The negative effects of those carbon emissions on the health of Bayonne residents is profound. Many are at greater risk because of age or because they have asthma or other chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes, or because they don’t have money to pay for healthcare or move to areas with better air quality.
“The largest unresolved issue in this country is healthcare, and we spend more on healthcare than any other country by far,” said Bayonne resident and environmental advocate Vito Gallo. “Certainly, environmental health is a big part of it.”
Gallo grew up in Bayonne and lived in Summit for decades before moving back to be closer to his grandchildren in Brooklyn.
“When you go out to the leafy suburbs, they can afford to think air quality s ethereal,” Gallo said. “I don’t think we can afford to think that here in Bayonne. There are some unique opportunities for this town to help solve the problem.”
Bayonne is not alone in its embrace of gas-powered vehicles, a major cause of carbon emissions. Diesel trucking is a major industry on Bayonne’s eastern shore, where trucks transport goods to and from warehouses. The ports in Newark and Elizabeth are also major contributors to carbon emissions as giant container ships are left idling during the process of loading and unloading. Then, diesel trucks transport those goods to the rest of the region.
Environmental advocates have been pushing for municipalities to replace vehicle fleets with electric cars, install electric charging ports, and require developers to include charging ports at new buildings. That could happen with police departments, fire departments, school districts, and municipal agencies. Jersey City, for instance, is pushing to install electric charging ports across the city and require city contractors to use electric vehicles, such as garbage trucks. Advocates are also pushing NJ Transit to replace the old diesel buses with electric buses.
“The reason I emphasize fleets is because a bus, a ride share, or a rent-a-car goes back to the same garage every day,” said Amy Goldsmith, State Director of Clean Water Action, a NJ-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environment, health, and economic well-being of New Jersey residents and communities’ quality of life. “You can centralize the infrastructure for that. In a place like Bayonne, the city could adopt requirements for any new development that could have x number of charging stations.”
“Of course, we’re all for better air quality. There’s a lot of work to be done before mandating something like that,” said Bayonne City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski. “We wouldn’t be able to support charging stations [financially]. It’s something we’re definitely looking at going forward, but there is no immediate plans until our infrastructure is caught up. As [fleets] becomes old and out of service, replacement vehicles and motorized vehicles or whatever else can be clean would certainly be the way to look.”
PSE&G has installed some charging stations around Bayonne, and some developers have included charging stations in their garages voluntarily, but no requirement currently exists. PSE&G plans for some charging stations, but nothing specific is in the works.
Goldsmith also leads “Coalition for Healthy Ports NY/NJ,” an initiative that calls for the use of technology to capture carbon emissions from smokestacks on container ships, which is used on the West Coast. Advocates from the coalition were at Bayonne’s planning board meeting in April to lobby local officials to require more stringent environmental requirements on trucks traveling to and from a new 153-acre warehouse facility called the Bayonne Logistics Center on the former Military Ocean Terminal that will take the place of the former Ports of America.
“This technology is like a big vacuum cleaner,” Goldsmith said. “It connects to the top of the smokestack and collects the air from the fumes. It goes through a diesel particulate filter. The Port Authority agreed, but then the shipping companies said they didn’t want to pay to hook up, even though they do for other ports.”
New Jersey state government was planning to follow California’s lead by imposing stricter standards on diesel truck emissions, in part by banning all trucks built before 2007. That was set to go into effect in January, but the Port Authority of NY and NJ did not follow through.
A common refrain in improving technology and infrastructure to meet environmental needs is cost. State and federal grants and cooperation with utility companies would be needed for significant change. But what s the cost of not doing anything?
“Bayonne is a shore town, and it’s going to be underwater,” Goldsmith said. “So what do you want to pay for the price of global warming? Losing property value and having your city underwater? Higher flood insurance? All those costs don’t show up when you put the gas in the pump or pay your property tax bill. Those costs are born by families and municipalities. If we want to mitigate climate, we have to take some steps and demand the innovation. The more we demand innovation, the more that will come and the prices will come down.”
In the event Bayonne goes underwater, it could be poorer citizens who pay the biggest price. Those who can afford to can move out and buy a home somewhere with good air quality, clean water, and no risk of flooding. Or maybe they have the means to install water filters and air filters in their home.
“I think everyone has a right to clean air, whether you’re riding on a bus or walking to school or driving in a car,” Goldsmith. said “Let’s employ people in Bayonne to make the city more sustainable. We’re not going to go back to pristine days, and we’re not going to completely reverse climate change. But we can make Bayonne livable fo everryone regardless of their economic status.”