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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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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.

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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.

Controversial changes

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.

Several federal air-quality experts contacted by the Monitor say it is clear to them that EPA's planned changes would weaken the underpinnings of clean-air standards for Class 1 regions.

"We're talking about more pollution in national parks and wilderness, not less, because of this proposed change," says a federal air-quality expert, who asked not to be named because he was not permitted to speak to the press.

Lawmakers raise objections

Congress is concerned, too. In February, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter expressing his concerns to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. In it, Congressman Waxman quotes an internal e-mail from Mr. Bunyak that compares the EPA's plan to average polluters' emissions over a year when evaluating air permit applications to "allowing a person to average all the variations in his driving speed over [an] entire year to see whether he is complying with the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit."

"It looks like the EPA is once again ignoring the law and the best guidance of their career staff and operating instead from a political perspective," Waxman said in an interview. "We've seen it from the documents we already have and it's a troubling story."