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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.

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Officials at EPA, however, broadly rebuffed Waxman's concerns in a March letter by Robert Myers, principal deputy assistant administrator.

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To the congressman's contention that EPA staff concerns had been ignored, Mr. Myers wrote that all "had full opportunity to express their concerns ... and all concerns were considered" prior to publication of the proposed rule.

Regarding other issues Waxman and others raised, he wrote that while some polluters would be omitted from Class 1 emissions calculations, they would still have to comply with lesser Class 2 requirements.

Myers added that internal concerns expressed by the Park Service and the agency's own staff who critiqued the proposal two years ago were addressed fully in the proposal's final language.

But federal air-quality experts told the Monitor that little of substance changed in the proposal after their critiques in 2006.

"In my mind and to a lot of regional [EPA] air-quality officers, the effect of this proposal is to undermine the gains and practices of the past two decades," says Scott Bohning, an air-quality engineer in the EPA's San Francisco office. "Right now there are standard practices considered reasonable – and those will be thrown out the window."

Court battles lie ahead

Still others say the EPA's latest shift fits a pattern of changing air-pollution regulations to conform to a desired outcome Congress never intended when it passed the Clean Air Act.

"It's part of a familiar game played by this administration of trying to figure out how to help industry avoid pollution permits," says Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement from 1997 to 2002. "They never seem to quit even though they've lost almost everything they've done [on changing air pollution regulations] in the federal courts."

Mr. Wenzler says his group and probably others would challenge the EPA changes in court. But that might not stop the power industry, in the meantime, from winning permits to begin building.

In the meantime, Waxman wrote EPA Administrator Johnson again this month, questioning whether EPA staff objections were really addressed.

In response, the EPA says it is "considering these [Waxman's] questions as we develop the final rule, which we expect to issue by the end of 2008," Tim Lyons, the EPA's deputy press secretary, wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor.

That may be small comfort, though, to Mr. Moore trying to focus his camera back on the face of "Old Rag Mountain" in Shenandoah National Park.

"Some of the granite on the face of these mountains was exposed about 300 million years ago," he says. "I would hate it if this change means I won't be able to see it anymore."