U.S. Park Views Still in Haze
On April 16, the EPA announced that power plants contributing to visibility impairment would have to adopt "best available retrofit technology," or BART, by 2018 or prove that the cost of compliance was too high.
"Regional haze is a national problem caused by multiple sources over a wide area," the agency said, adding that reducing haze would have other benefits: "The same pollution that causes haze also poses serious health risks for people with chronic respiratory illnesses."
But administration critics say the EPA may undermine its own initiative by letting polluters rely on a different Clean Air regulation, the Interstate Air Quality Rule, to address fine-particle pollution. That approach -- which the agency is vetting for public comment -- will not translate into quick cuts in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, they argue. The rule gives power plants in the East the ability to trade pollution "credits."
The utility industry has fought the BART rule in court, seeking to head it off altogether. The industry scored a partial win in the D.C. circuit courts but is still under federal order to reduce emissions.
Quin Shea, executive director for the environment at the Edison Electric Institute, said the industry would prefer to see the Interstate Air Quality Rule adopted rather than BART, calling the regulation "an appropriate surrogate for the electric power sector." He added that the interstate rule, which calls for a two-thirds reduction in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, is "excellent at meeting a first milestone for visibility."
Air quality has been diminishing in many national parks, according to a study completed by Colorado State University in May 2000 that found that vistas deteriorated in Badlands National Park, Big Bend National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, among others.
Officials of the National Parks Conservation Association, a leading critic of the EPA's efforts to tackle haze over the years, also challenge the administration's timeline for reducing haze, which sets a final target 60 years from now. Joy Oakes, the group's mid-Atlantic regional director, called that far-off goal "fairly ridiculous."
The EPA's Wehrum said the agency hopes to make "reasonable progress" of 15 percent clearer air every decade. "From a technical standpoint, it's a very complex problem to work your way through," he said.
Critics who question the administration's commitment are pointing to the accord the EPA accepted for Theodore Roosevelt Park in North Dakota, which allows the state to choose what year to use as the baseline for measuring air-quality trends and to count average emissions over the entire year, rather than peak emissions.
The EPA's own specialists in measuring air quality trends wrote that the agreement marked "substantial changes from past air quality modeling guidance . . . and accepted methods."
But it drew the praise of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "The air in North Dakota is exceptionally clear," said Conrad, who says the agreement will promote economic development in his home state. "I do believe what happened in North Dakota was an appropriate outcome."
Wehrum, however, acknowledged the political firestorm the pact had prompted. "It has generated an amount of debate, I won't deny that," he said.
EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said "conversations are still ongoing" with the North Dakota officials on how to measure air pollution trends.
"The negative impact of pollution in our parks is real," said Stanton of the National Environmental Trust. "Why will people travel to scenic areas if they can't see the scenery?"
But Wehrum said it will take time for regulators to hit on the right formula. "How in the world would you do this?" he asked. "It takes a lot of sophistication and complicated analysis."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company