(TRENTON, N.J.) ― It is hard to believe that 46 years have passed since the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. That event marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. It also was the launch of what has to be the most successful grass-roots movement in history. Never before, and never since, has one day so galvanized the public and moved governments at every level, to action.
Earth Day also marks the 46th anniversary of the establishment of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Created by Governor William T. Cahill, New Jersey was just the third state in the country to form a department whose sole mission was to protect, restore, and preserve the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live.
In the nearly five decades since, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, New Jersey has made enormous progress in undoing the environmental injuries of our state’s past and creating an environment in which our state and our people can thrive. And we have done so while also preserving the prosperity of our state.
This week, I will be visiting multiple schools throughout the state to talk about the environment in New Jersey. In part, I will be discussing that the best way to measure our progress – and our success – is to look at the state of our environment. There are some who think the success of New Jersey’s environmental protection efforts is best measured by how much money we have collected in fines, how many new regulations we have written, and how many employees we have on DEP’s payroll.
I do not agree. I believe the best way to measure our progress is by looking at the condition of our air, our water, our land, and our wildlife. These are the best measures of our progress – and across the board, they prove that New Jersey’s environment is in much better shape than it was 46 years ago, and that the health of our environment continues to improve from one Earth Day anniversary to the next.
Today, New Jersey has some of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in the country. Air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter are at their lowest levels in decades. Emissions from our own power plants are lower in New Jersey than they are in 45 other states. The acidity of rainfall in New Jersey has almost returned to natural levels and ground level ozone has also declined considerably.
New Jersey’s water is significantly cleaner than it was 46 years ago. Ninety-eight percent of our community water systems are in compliance with all chemical and radiological standards and we continue to identify and regulate contaminants of emerging concern to ensure public health. New Jersey’s coastal waters have rebounded from the damage done to them in decades past. Last summer, New Jersey’s beaches were open 99.9 percent of the time. And far more of our lakes, rivers, and streams are fishable and swimmable than they were in 1970.
Our state’s land and natural and historic resources are also better protected than ever before. Today, more than 1.5 million acres of New Jersey’s land is permanently protected as open space or farmland. That’s fully 33 percent of our state’s total land area and growing. We have also cleaned up tens of thousands of contaminated sites and are now cleaning up such sites at a faster pace than ever before. In the past six years alone, more than 13,000 contaminated sites have been cleaned up and returned to beneficial use.
The effect of these successes is reflected in the health of New Jersey’s wildlife. Forty-six years ago such birds as wood ducks, falcons, ospreys and egrets were in a steep decline. Today, all of these birds, and many others, have rebounded and their populations are growing. In 1970, about the only place you could see a Bald Eagle in New Jersey was on the back of a quarter or a dollar bill.
Today, New Jersey is home to nearly 150 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles, scattered across the entire state, and that number is growing every year. And where once animals such as black bears, coyotes, and red foxes were only rarely, if ever, seen in New Jersey, today they are as familiar as squirrels in most parts of our state.
Of course, even with all this progress our work is not yet done, and it never will be completed. But on this Earth Day, we have much to be proud of in New Jersey. The progress we have made – and the commitment we share to continue that progress – ensures that we are leaving our state’s environment in much better shape than we found it. And that’s worth celebrating.