KNOXVILLE, Tenn., April 22 -- President Bush was to have celebrated Earth Day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Friday, pitching in on a trail restoration project and giving a speech touting his environmental record with the park's majestic peaks serving as a compelling backdrop. But Mother Nature did not cooperate.
Severe thundershowers posed a danger for the president's visit to a grassy meadow deep in the park, where an audience had gathered earlier, so Bush delivered his remarks from an airport hangar here.
Bush said that since he took office, the environment has improved in many areas: more wetlands are protected; and water quality is slowly improving; as is air quality, including the oft-smoggy air that blankets many of the nation's national parks.
"I'm proud to report since 2000, the ozone levels have dropped -- but there is more to be done to make sure the Smoky Mountains and the Smoky Mountain national park is as beautiful as possible," said Bush, who was joined by other officials, including Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Steve Johnson, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is a record seen far differently by environmental activists, who believe Bush is too cozy with industry and that some of his proposals would undermine environmental enforcement. "The job is far from complete," said Michael Shore, a senior air policy analyst with Environmental Defense, an advocacy group. "We need President Bush to commit his administration to clean up mountain haze, to deal with global warming and to create cleaner air for our children and children's children."
In the past year, the Bush administration has finalized a rule that it says would cut by 90 percent pollution from heavy-duty diesel engines used in tractors and construction equipment. Bush also said that his administration has overseen the restoration of more than 800,000 acres of fragile wetlands across the country in the past year.
Bush touted his plan to change clean-air laws, saying it would significantly cut pollution from coal-fired power plants. "We use a market-based system, a cap-and-trade system to provide flexibility so that the power plants can meet the goals we set of reducing pollution by 70 percent," he said.
Part of that plan has been enacted through executive order. But other elements have been stalled in Congress, where many environmental groups oppose its passage, saying it will undermine state and local authority to enforce environmental standards.
In coming to Tennessee, Bush was to have been the first president to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Last year, more than 9.2 million people came to the park to hike its 850 miles of trails, fish its streams and explore it on horseback or bicycle, making it the nation's most-visited national park. It is also cited by the National Parks Conservation Association as the most polluted, with acid rain fouling its waterways and smog marring its magical views. Some locals have taken to calling the 520,000-acre park the "Great Smoggy."
"The experience of visitors is dependent on clear views," Shore said. Under ideal conditions, visibility from peaks in the park should be 113 miles, he said. But the average at the park is 25, and he said that "on summer days, the visibility might be as low as 12 miles or even worse."
Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, noted that on three days in the past week, the EPA had reported that smog levels in the park were "unhealthy for sensitive groups." O'Donnell criticized Bush for backing a provision in an energy bill passed by the House on Thursday that would ease cleanup requirements in parts of the country where the pollution is caused in other areas upwind. "It is remarkable that on Earth Day, the president would actually be backing a plan that would prolong dirty air," O'Donnell said in a statement.
In June, the EPA is scheduled to finalize a rule aimed at significantly reducing haze pollution in national parks by requiring new smokestack controls at large industrial sites. That rule, the outgrowth of a settlement to a 2003 lawsuit Environmental Defense filed against EPA, is aimed at reducing haze in national parks across the country. "There is still a question as to what that rule will look like," Shore said.
Last month, the EPA enacted new controls aimed at reducing levels of health-damaging ozone and atmospheric soot caused by emissions from power plants in eastern and midwestern states.
The Clean Air Interstate Rule is viewed as the most substantial tightening of air quality standards since the Clean Air Act was last amended in 1990. The rule, to be phased in over the next decade, sets limits for the release of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power-plant smokestacks in 28 states and the District.