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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
The proposed changes would effectively hide pollution spikes from regulators, ignore existing major polluters, allow "phony pollution accounting" methods, and let states establish their own standards, says Mark Wenzler, clean air director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group.
An EPA spokesman in Washington declined to grant an interview or respond to e-mailed questions. A fact sheet about the proposed rule and a letter to Congress on the change were referred instead. "The proposed rules would provide greater regulatory certainty and reduce complexity without sacrificing the current level of environmental protection," the fact sheet says.
Central to the proposal, say Park Service and EPA experts, are four changes. They would:
•Substitute an annual average of emissions for the current "maximum" emissions that is measured over a few hours, up to a single day.
•Exclude from pollution estimates output from existing industrial emitters that have been granted variances.
•Switch from calculating emissions using the two most recent years of data to any time period "more representative" of normal operations.
•Grant discretion to state regulators to use whatever data and information in their judgment would be most reliable in calculating emissions.
The final period of public-comment on these changes closed earlier this month. The final rule is expected to take effect before the end of the year.