U.S. Park Views Still in Haze
EPA Criticized for Not Doing Enough to Clear the Air
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page A21
After nearly 30 years, the federal government has little to show for its efforts to reduce the haze that obscures the views at many national parks, a problem that was singled out for attention in 1977 under the Clean Air Act.
Saying it was time for results, the Bush administration took aim at the matter last month, issuing a regulation that requires power plants and other polluters to install technology to curb emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the two main contributors to the haze that often shrouds spectacular vistas in an impenetrable brown cloud.
But no sooner was it announced than the regulation became mired in controversy, with environmentalists saying the rule was a watered-down provision that would have little effect.
It is an accusation the Environmental Protection Agency rejects.
"What the administration's doing with regard to regional haze, we're charging down the road," said William Wehrum, counsel to the assistant administrator for air and radiation at the EPA.
The picture is complicated, however, by an agreement that EPA administrator Michael Leavitt forged with North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) to allow the state to change how it measures air quality, a deal that environmentalists said would torpedo efforts to reduce the worsening haze at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, known for its rugged view of the North Dakota Badlands.
This pact, signed on Feb. 24, sparked a rare outcry from most of the EPA's own specialists in air quality monitoring, who warned in a memo that the "substantial changes" allowed under the agreement would underestimate the impact of air pollution and could "set a precedent" that would undermine cleanup efforts in other regions.
After taking stock of the administration's recent actions, environmentalists argue the end result will be little or no improvement in the vistas at the Great Smoky Mountains and many other iconic national parks.
"Clearly in North Dakota and in some of its national policy decisions there's an urgent need to redouble our efforts to protect national parks and other vital ecosystems from air pollution," said Vickie Patton, a senior lawyer at Environmental Defense. "They're letting some of these high-polluting sources off the hook."
John Stanton of the National Environmental Trust said: "Twenty-seven years ago, Congress told EPA to prevent the further deterioration in air quality. EPA really hasn't done a thing."
The current dispute -- which has drawn in at least one Democratic senator as well as numerous environmentalists -- highlights the contentious debate over air quality and visibility in national parks that attract millions of visitors a year.
Under ideal conditions, visibility from peaks in parks such as Shenandoah, Acadia and the Great Smoky Mountains should be more than 100 miles. But the year-round average at Shenandoah hovers closer to 25 miles, dipping to 15 miles during the summer. EPA monitoring data show that smog levels have increased and that visibility has worsened in parks including Bryce Canyon in Utah, Big Bend in Texas and the Great Smoky Mountains, along with others in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.
Most haze is caused by fine particles of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which become suspended in the atmosphere. Coal-fired plants account for most of the visibility impairment in eastern national parks and wilderness areas; in the West, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and carbon monoxide -- often from mobile sources such as cars and trucks -- are the primary culprits.
Part of the controversy involves disagreements over which set of clean-air rules should be invoked to tackle the haze problem.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company