EPA Passes Power Over Parks Air Quality to States

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 16, 2005 (ENS) - A federal rule approved late Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hands state governments a lead role in deciding how to improve air quality at many national parks and wilderness areas.

States have until 2018 to fully implement the rule, which aims to cut emissions from a wide array of industrial facilities built prior to 1977, including utility and industrial boilers, pulp mills, refineries and smelters.

Pollution from these facilities is reducing visibility and negatively impacting 156 national parks and wilderness areas across the United States, including Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Big Bend, Acadia, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks.

The facilities covered by the rule each have the potential to emit more than 250 tons a year of visibility impairing pollution, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and some volatile organic compounds.

Some facilities may not have to make any emission cuts under the rule, which orders states to consider the visibility impacts of an individual facility when determining whether they have to install controls, and what those controls would be.

Park advocates say the new EPA rule fails to match the scope of the air quality problems faced by America's 156 parks and wilderness areas

The rule condemns “many national parks to a future of unsightly and unhealthy air pollution,” said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. State implementation plans for reducing haze in the specially protected areas must be submitted to the EPA by December 2007.

By 2018 the rule will cut annual emissions of NOx by some 600,000 tons and annual S02 pollution by some 400,000 tons, according to the EPA.

power plant

The federally owned and operated Tennessee Valley Authority's Shawnee coal fired power plant is located about 10 miles northwest of Paducah, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. (Photo courtesy TVA)
"America's national parks and wilderness areas are getting a new level of protection," said Jeff Holmstead, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation.

Holmstead said the rule, combined with other federal clean air regulations, means "that our views will be clearer and the air healthier."

The agency estimates the rule will cost some $1.5 billion annually but will provide more than $8 billion in public health benefits and some $240 million a year in increased tourism at the affected parks and wilderness areas.

The EPA announced the rule in order to satisfy a deadline ordered by a consent decreee with Environmental Defense – it finalizes goals for cleaner air in the parks set by Congress in 1977.

But the national environmental group is not happy with the result.

The new rule makes it "harder for states to restore clean air to our national parks by exempting some high-polluting industrial sources from clean up requirements," said Environmental Defense senior scientist Jana Milford.

Sierra Club President Carl Pope criticized the rule's reliance on the promises of other federal clean air regulations, in particular a Bush administration rule set to implement a NOx and SO2 emissions trading plan for the nation's power plants.

That regulation, known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule, promises reductions in overall air pollution over the next decade, Pope said, but "lacks the guarantees that individual communities – or parks – will see the pollution reductions they need to ensure that the air is safe and clear."

Critics also raised concerns about the EPA's decision to allow states to ignore the first 35 days of adverse visibility impacts over a five year period in determining whether a source should be subject to cleanup requirements, dubbed "best available retrofit technology" or "BART."

"Every day of visibility damage matters," said Milford. "We shouldn't have to wait 36 days to demonstrate that the source is harmful."

There is little doubt haze is a major problem in many of the nation's most treasured places - haze reduces natural visibility distances by as much as 25 miles in the eastern United States and 90 miles in the some western parks.

Earlier this week, Environmental Defense released a new report, "Clearing the Haze from Western Skies," documenting the rising pollution levels at national parks in the interior West, from Yellowstone in the north to Grand Canyon in the south.


Valmont Power Plant in Colorado is fueled by coal and natural gas. Located in a regional wildlife refuge, the first unit went into service in 1924. The four oldest units were retired in 1986. (Photo by C. Bergesen)

Visibility has worsened over the past decade at western parks and monuments from Guadalupe Mountains in the South to Glacier in the North, according the study.

The report finds that at parks and monuments across the West, average visibility is frequently only half what it would be under natural conditions, under which views can extend over 150 miles.

Haze is made up of fine particle pollution, ozone pollution, and deposits of reactive nitrogen that "threaten sensitive mountain ecosystems and human health," the report warns.

Reactive nitrogen is released into the atmosphere in the form of ammonia or nitrogen oxides and falls to Earth in gas, particle or aqueous form. It can lead to over-fertilization of ecosystems, displacing natural species such as alpine wildflowers, and can contribute to acidification of lakes and streams.

High mountain ecosystems and water bodies across the West are susceptible to this damage, according to Environmental Defense, which says NOx emissisions from industrial facilities are a major cause of the problem.