By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
November 4, 2011

New Jersey governors, both Democratic and Republican, have long pressed for a cleanup of coal plants in other states that are spewing toxins into our air.

Until now. Gov. Chris Christie broke that streak yesterday. He said the Environmental Protection Agency is already doing too much. He said the federal government has too much power. He said he was “inclined” to reject calls to support the coal plant cleanup ordered by the EPA.

This is a day to fly the flags at half-staff. Because hundreds of people in New Jersey will die prematurely every year if Christie gets his way. Many more will suffer from heart attacks and asthma.

That’s not melodrama, unfortunately. The EPA has ordered a cleanup of power plants in 27 states, most of them to our west and south. The order will cost New Jersey almost nothing because our power plants are already much cleaner than most.

But the benefits will be huge. The EPA estimates this rule will save up to 1,200 lives a year when the cleanup is complete. That’s because more than one-third of our air pollution wafts in from other states, most of it from coal plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and other states that allow their plants to operate without modern pollution controls.

Christie understands this. The great irony is that he won an important battle earlier this week to force a cleanup of the Portland Generation Station, an old and filthy coal plant that sits on the bank of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.

Precisely the same principle is at work. An out-of-state plant was spewing pollution our way, making it impossible for New Jersey to clean its air. So Bob Martin, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, asked the federal government for help.

New Jersey won that case because the science was irrefutable. You can draw a direct line between that coal plant and our pollution. You can see the smoke waft across the river. People who live nearby in Warren County have to wipe coal smudge off their cars and windows in the morning. Their kids have much higher rates of asthma, according to testimony before the EPA.

This same pattern occurs on a much larger scale every day. But when pollution floats to New Jersey from Ohio, it’s impossible to draw a direct line to an individual plant. We know only that toxins we breathe come from coal plants in the region to our west and south. That’s why the EPA ordered a broad cleanup under what’s known as the cross-state rule.

Most of the other states that are downwind from these plants have joined in defending the EPA against a lawsuit filed by the dirty power companies, and the cities and states in which they operate. In similar fights in the past, New Jersey has joined them.

But not this time. And with a Nov. 6 deadline approaching, the governor yesterday gave us the thoughtless talking points that have become so familiar as the Republican Party continues its assault on environmental regulations.

What has happened to the species of moderate Republicans, such as former Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, who both supported sensible EPA actions against these coal plants?

The drift rightward has hit Washington, as well as Trenton. Until this year, New Jersey Republicans in Congress frequently crossed the aisle in defense of the environment. Not anymore. The entire GOP delegation has joined the assault on the EPA, and this cross-state rule in particular. They voted in favor of the TRAIN Act, which would block the EPA’s authority to impose these rules, perhaps indefinitely.

Christie still has a few days to shift directions. He has taken some positive steps on air pollution, such as limiting diesel fumes, emissions from dry cleaners and sulfur content of home heating oil. So there is still a shred of hope.

It would take courage in today’s climate. It might even wreck his chances of being selected as a vice presidential candidate. But it would save lives and protect the health of vulnerable New Jerseyans.

Surely that is more important than partisan politics.