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Why national parks, coal-fired power plants may be neighbors

Air-quality experts worry that proposed changes to clean-air regulations may allow developers to build the plants near pristine areas.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2008

The skies at Zion National Park in Utah could soon become dirtier if a proposed revision to clean-air regulations takes effect. The proposal may clear the way for coal-fired power plants to be built nearby. More than 2.6 million people visited the park in 2007.

Andy Nelson

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Nature photographer Hullihen Moore specializes in vistas of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, but worries he'll soon be unable to see his beloved ridgelines through a yellowish haze of industrial emissions.

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On some days, thick air already obscures mountains just a few miles distant, he says. So adding six new coal-fired power plants nearby, as is proposed, might make view-gazing impossible.

Shenandoah isn't the only national treasure whose scenic values are up in the air, however. From Virginia to Utah, the air quality of at least 10 national parks, including many with crystalline views, is threatened by plans to build at least two dozen new coal-fired power plants, parks advocates and air-quality experts say.

The little-known reason places with names like Badlands, Wind Cave, and Great Basin could soon see sullied air is a federal proposal that would lower the bar for developers seeking permits to build upwind of the parks, these critics say.

Despite blunt internal criticism by its own staff experts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proceeding with a plan by year's end to revise regulations under the Clean Air Act that currently safeguard areas with some of the nation's cleanest air.

Across the United States, 156 national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges have been designated by Congress as Class-1 areas, granting them the toughest legal protection.

Officially, the EPA says it is proposing "refinements" to regulations that measure Class-1 air-quality standards.

But federal air-quality experts at the EPA and the National Park Service say the planned changes would be a backward step for air quality.

"It's hard to see this proposal as improving air quality in the parks," says John Bunyak, policy chief at the National Park Service's planning and permit branch, which oversees air-quality issues. "It could allow additional pollution sources to locate in a particular area, where they wouldn't have been permitted under the old rule."

Inside the EPA, staff air experts have protested that the proposal would weaken the criteria used to evaluate just how polluted a Class 1 area already is – and how much pollution a new industrial facility would be permitted to add to that area.

EPA regional staff experts, in internal documents, said the proposal provided "the lowest possible degree of protection" against spikes in pollution – a common occurrence during hot days, when power plants operate at near maximum output.