By Tom Kessler
More than 30 years after the Clean Air Act set a national goal of cleaning up dirty air in major national parks and wilderness areas, conservationists don’t see progress but they do still see a yellowish haze caused by old power plants and factories with outdated pollution controls.
Last week, the Environmental Defense Fund and National Parks Conservation Association sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce deadlines for the states to adopt Clean Air Act plans. To date, only a handful of states have submitted the required plans to comply with the law. The two groups say coal power plants and factory emissions continue to obscure views at national parks across the country.
The groups also say that Bush administration proposals will weaken pollution rules for new factories and power plants looking to build upwind of national parks. A report by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), called “Dark Horizons,” says the rules would make it easier for developers to build new plants that would threaten air quality in at least 10 national parks, including Virginia’s Shenandoah, Colorado’s Mesa Verde and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt national parks.
The move by the administration is both surprising and troubling, said Mark Wenzler, clean air and climate program director for the NPCA and author of “Dark Horizons”.
Bush “made a real effort to get more appropriations for the national parks and every Earth Day you’d find him in a national park…but then behind the scenes, there have been no fewer than four actions to undermine air quality of the national parks,” Wenzler said.
The rush to bring more coal plants online — more than 100 coal power plants are in development across the nation — would worsen greenhouse gas emissions and permit the mining and burning of coal to release a dangerous chemical burden on the air, soil and streams in the national park lands, according to the report.
Loosening the federal air quality rules also would allow existing coal plants that lack modern pollution control devices to continue to “inflict severe pollution damage on the national parks” instead of retrofitting their smokestacks to better control emissions as required by the Clean Air Act.
Notes the report, “the Bush Administration regulations issued in 2006 exempt hundreds of outdated power plants from upgrading their pollution controls.”
Toxic pollutants from coal plants produce acid rain that can severely damage vegetation and human health, and emissions that include mercury, which persists in the environment and travels up the food chain, affecting wildlife and ultimately humans.
“If we fail to stop this plan (to loosen regulations), our children and grandchildren will inherit national parks with sick and dying trees, parks with fish so laden with mercury that they are unsafe to eat, and parks where visitors cannot hike without risking an asthma attack,” the “Dark Horizons” report said.
The National Park Service and every EPA regional office has opposed the administration plan to weaken the clean air rules, but the federal EPA appears unswayed, according to the report.
Wentzler and the non-profit NPCA are urging the next administration to move in the opposite direction by upgrading pollution controls and pursuing clean energy alternatives to reduce the pressure to keep old coal plants in service and add new ones.
“It’s going to be a good decade before we see this have a meaningful effect, but as long as we get started early in this new administration I think that’s what we need to do,” he said.
Moves toward clean energy also could stem the damage to nearby natural areas, stopping, for instance, the mountain top mining of the Appalachians. The mountains are safe in the protected Shenandoah National Park, but the pollution drifts in and the ecosystems are connected.
“It’s heartbreaking to think of,” Wenzler said. “These mountains that have suffered so much. They were logged over early in the (20th) century. Now you see them being blown up. These mountains have paid their dues. It’s time they become the refuges they should be.”
As for the new pending lawsuit, the Clean Air Act required states to submit enforceable plans for cleaning up hazy skies to the EPA by last December. Only 14 states and other jurisdictions have submitted plans. Meanwhile, the EPA has not met its reciprocal requirement to determine whether those plans are adequate.
According to the National Park Service, air pollution affects most U.S. national parks. In most of the western states, visibility is now about one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without man-made air pollution (about 140 miles). The average visual range in the eastern states is about one-fifth of what it would be under natural conditions (about 90 miles).
- See a map of national parks and get links to air quality data and photos of visibility conditions.
- GetListy: 10 National parks most threatened by pollution