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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Save a Life - Build a Park

Hudson County is now considered to be the lung cancer capital of the United States. It’s nice to know that every time I take a deep breath of air, I could be knocking a few years off of my life. As I’ve said before, I’m not afraid of being dead, but I don’t want to go from lung cancer (quick well-wishes for Peter Jennings, who apparently spent way too much time in Hudson County).

The main culprit around here is diesel soot. If you want to know more about diesel soot, simply spray your car with water and idle it next to a semi-tractor for a few minutes. Pretty soon, you’ll have a layer of grime thick enough to write your name with your finger. That’s one reason why you probably put your window up if you are next to a diesel rig in traffic. Even without my quasi-scientific experiment you realized that breathing that stuff was probably bad.

There are two main reasons for diesel soot problems in Hudson County: transportation and electrical utilities. Hudson County is at one end of the two major transportation tunnels into Manhattan (Lincoln and Holland). For now they have stopped trucks from going through the Holland, but that simply makes them use an alternate route through our cities to get around it. In other words, it doesn’t help the air any (it wasn’t meant to – it’s because of 9-11 – you heard about how the terrorists flew right through the Holland Tunnel, right? Right?).

Every truck coming into New York City from anywhere outside of New England or upstate New York must pass through New Jersey. Most of them pass through Hudson County. With several million – and I won’t guess how many – people commuting back and forth continually, this means a lot of traffic and a lot of diesel fumes being pumped into the air. It isn’t bad, once you get used to chewing your air.

The other problem is lightweight fly-ash from electrical utilities as far away as Ohio. Think that’s impossible? Several Ohio utilities recently settled legal cases with the state of New Jersey because Princeton researchers showed they could predict what type of fuel was being burned in Ohio and how much of it was being burned by sampling the air right outside of their window. Of course, there are a few utilities in Pennsylvania, too, and a couple here in New Jersey that add to that mix.

Municipalities, and individuals, are pretty much helpless to stop the sources of this type of pollution. Hoboken just can’t tell everyone to make a wide loop around the state of New Jersey so we can breathe easier. Jersey City can’t tell Ohio to switch to natural gas for their utility services (though it would be nice if they hit upon that idea on their own) so our lungs can finish coughing up one glob of gunk before another plops down there. However, that does not mean they are totally helpless.

Science teaches us that one of the most effective way to pull excess carbon out of the environment is to promote the presence of living things that need carbon – things like grass and trees and flowers. Hudson County could actually cut its average lung cancer risk by tearing down some dilapidated and abandoned buildings and putting in nice lush green parks. I actually had a friend at the EPA tell me that the air immediately downwind of Central Park in Manhattan is measurably cleaner than the air upwind of it – regardless of which way the wind is blowing.

It could actually be a far-sighted economic move as well. As research on carbon emissions continues to build, New Jersey might well be able to sell the carbon-sequestering rights of its parks to Ohio. Think about it, a park that makes money by cleaning up pollution put in the air from a thousand miles away. It beautifies the city, raises community pride and increases the value of the land. It really is a way that everyone can win.

I’m fortunate enough to live across the street from a park. I’ll admit that it is sometimes a pain in the ass – especially when they put the carnival there or when the Little League buys a new sound system. However, it is also a place where I can see families making memories every day – children playing baseball, lovers walking hand-in-hand, mommies pushing their new babies in strollers. It’s a wonderful place.

And it might just be cleaning their lungs, too.

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