Court Ordered Haze Rule Cleans Parks' Air by 2064

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 19, 2004 (ENS) - States will take a leading role in reducing the haze that plagues many national parks and wilderness areas, according to a proposal released late Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The plan would amend the agency's 1999 Regional Haze Rule, which requires the installation of best available control technology (BART) on older facilities emitting pollution that states determine impair visibility in specially protected areas.

The EPA announced the rule in order to satisfy a deadline ordered by a 2003 court settlement - the proposal would finalize goals for cleaner air in the parks set by the Clean Air Act. The ultimate goal of the law is to restore natural air quality to the parks and wilderness areas by 2064.

That goal will not be easily met - haze pollution reduces natural visibility distances by as much as 76 miles in the eastern United States and 107 in the West. Affected parks include Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Big Bend, Acadia, Sequoia, and Yosemite.

The BART requirements of the rule apply to facilities built between 1962 and 1977 that have the potential to emit more than 250 tons a year of visibility impairing pollution, including fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and some volatile organic compounds.

The facilities affected fall into 26 categories, including utility and industrial boilers, pulp mills, refineries and smelters. shenandoahhazy

On a hazy summer day, visibility from Shenandoah's overlooks can shrink to less than a mile. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The EPA initially proposed BART guidelines in July 2001 but did not finalize that proposal, in light of the legal challenge.

When compared to the 2001 proposal, this proposal would require states to consider the visibility impacts of an individual facility when determining whether they have to install controls, and what those controls would be.

The plan will not set federal emission limits for sources of air pollution that reduce visibility in these areas, rather it allows states to set those limits.

The new proposal gives states until 2008 to identify facilities required to install BART controls and to develop implementation plans for reducing haze in 156 natural areas. The EPA said it cannot yet determine how many facilities will be forced to cut emissions under the plan, but stressed that this proposal is only one part of an wide ranging strategy to improve air quality across the nation.

The rule would also allow states to opt for an emissions trading program instead of installing BART controls.

But the proposal gives states until 2018 to fully implement the plans, a deadline that some is too far off in the future given the scope of the air quality problems faced by many national parks and wilderness areas.

Of greater concern is the freedom the proposal gives states to exempt individual facilities, said David Baron, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice who helped negotiate the settlement.

Scientists have shown that haze in the parks is the result of combined pollution from many industrial sources often from hundreds of miles away.

"We are not going to be able to clean up the air in the parks if the states are able to exempt sources," Baron said. "We would like to see some firm limits on pollution from these factories and power plants with only a very narrow possibility for exemption for those facilities that are truly insignificant with regards to their pollution contribution to parks." shenandoahhazy

Haze impairs views at the Grand Canyon. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"The current rule lets states avoid clear targets by claiming it is not reasonable to achieve them," he added, "but EPA does not define what is reasonable."

"This leaves us with the prospect that it could take generations before we have clean air in the parks and that is just not acceptable," Baron told ENS.

The EPA will take public comment on the proposal for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register and will finalize the rule by April 15, 2005.