U.S. Moves to Clear the Air Over Nation's Parks

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2001 (ENS) - In an effort to restore pristine views in the nation's national parks and wilderness areas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed amending its regional haze rule to help states determine how to set air pollution limits for a number of older, large utilities and other industrial plants.

The facilities covered by the new rule affect air quality in 156 wilderness areas, and many of the nation's most famous parks.

valley

Many of the nation's loveliest vistas, including this famous view down Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point in Yosemite National Park, are increasingly shrouded in haze (Three photos courtesy National Park Service)
The agency's action does not set emission limits for the older plants. Instead, it provides guidance for states to use as they determine which plants must install emission controls and the type of controls they must use.

"This initiative would yield not one but several major societal benefits. It would help cut the haze air pollution in our national parks, produce healthier air in our cities, and protect sensitive ecosystems from acid rain," said Vickie Patton, senior attorney for the conservation group Environmental Defense.

The EPA issued the regional haze rule in April 1999 to improve the views and air quality for millions of visitors to Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks and wilderness areas. During much of the year, a veil of white or brown haze hangs over many of these sites.

This haze - caused primarily by tiny particles that absorb and scatter sunlight - results from air pollution from power plants, cars and factories that drifts for hundreds of miles to obscure some of the country's most famous scenic vistas. The same pollution that causes haze also poses health risks, particularly for people with chronic respiratory diseases.

canyon

Haze sometimes blurs the view at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona
Under the haze rule, states must require older power plants and industrial facilities to install the best emission controls available. This requirement is known as the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) requirement.

The limits set by the states apply to facilities built between 1962 and 1977 that emit more than 250 tons a year of visibility damaging pollutants.

Facilities that may have to install controls come from 26 industrial categories, including utility boilers, industrial boilers and industrial plants such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants and steel and paper mills. Many of these older sources, known as "grandfathered" plants, have been exempt from stringent pollution controls under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA's proposed amendment will allow states to identify the facilities that must install emission controls, and how to evaluate the types of controls those plants must use. Most states must identify these plants by 2004. Controls must be installed within five years after the EPA approves the state regional haze plans, which states must complete by deadlines that vary from 2004 to 2008.

elk

Yellowstone National Park is home to many of North America's largest mammals, including elk
The amendment also guides states on establishing emissions trading programs as an alternative to requiring pollution control equipment. States may use such trading programs, provided they yield greater visibility improvement and emissions reductions than would be expected through plant by plant emission limits.

The EPA expects that controls on these older plants will significantly reduce emissions of pollutants that damage visibility, including sulfur dioxide (SO2) from power plants. Power plants potentially subject to the BART requirement, for example, emitted more than six million tons of SO2 in 1999. EPA anticipates that some facilities will be able to reduce emissions by 90 to 95 percent using existing retrofit technology.

The proposed amendment will be subject to approval by the incoming administration of George W. Bush. As Governor of Texas, Bush favored voluntary pollution controls over those mandated by federal law.

Bush also favored market based mechanisms, and the EPA's initiative gives states the flexibility to choose between mandated emissions control technology, or regionwide caps on pollution achieved through more emissions trading and other mechanisms.

power plant

Aging coal burning power plants are among the major industrial producers of haze (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
"The initiative is based on sound science, sound economics and a sound reading of the law," said Environmental Defense's Patton. "We urge the Bush Administration to support and promptly finalize this cost effective and highly beneficial clean air program."

The proposed amendments to the regional haze rule are available at: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/oarpg/