By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008
The Bush administration is on the verge of implementing new air quality rules that will make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas, according to rank-and-file agency scientists and park managers who oppose the plan.
The new regulations, which are likely to be finalized this summer, rewrite a provision of the Clean Air Act that applies to "Class 1 areas," federal lands that currently have the highest level of protection under the law. Opponents predict the changes will worsen visibility at many of the nation's most prized tourist destinations, including Virginia's Shenandoah, Colorado's Mesa Verde and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt national parks.
Nearly a year ago, with little fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changing the way the government measures air pollution near Class 1 areas on the grounds that the nation needed a more uniform way of regulating emissions near protected areas. The agency closed the comment period in April and has indicated it is not making significant changes to the draft rule, despite objections by EPA staff members.
Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who now heads the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewelll & Giuliani, helped initiate the rule change while heading the EPA's air and radiation office. He said agency officials became concerned that the EPA's scientific staff was taking "the most conservative approach" in predicting how much pollution new power plants would produce.
"The question from a policy perspective was: Do you need to have models based on the absolute worst-case conditions that were unlikely to ever occur in the real world?" Holmstead said in an interview Thursday. "This has to do with what [modeling] assumptions you're required to do. This is really a legal issue and a policy issue."
The initiative is the latest in a series of administration efforts going back to 2003 to weaken air quality protections at national parks, including failed moves to prohibit federal land managers from commenting on permits for new pollution sources more than 31 miles away from their areas and to protect air resources only for parks that are big and diverse enough to "represent complete ecosystems."
For 30 years, regulators have measured pollution levels in the parks, over both three-hour and 24-hour increments, to capture the spikes in emissions that occur during periods of peak energy demand. The new rule would average the levels over a year so that spikes in pollution levels would not violate the law.
A slew of National Park Service and EPA officials have challenged the rule change, arguing that it will worsen visibility in already-impaired areas, according to internal documents obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In one set of comments, the EPA's regional computer modeling staff wrote that the proposal "would allow for significant degradation" of the parks' air quality. An e-mail from National Park Service staff called aspects of the plan "bad public policy" that would "make it much easier to build power plants" near Class 1 areas, which include some Fish and Wildlife Service-protected land.
When the committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), asked the EPA whether the rule would facilitate construction of more power plants near protected areas, Robert J. Meyers, principal deputy assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, replied in an April 24 letter that this was not the intention of the rule but that he could not rule it out.
"We developed this proposal based on the need to clarify how increment consumption must be addressed, and not whether or not it would be easier to build power plants," Meyers wrote. "In the absence of any data or evidence provided by the National Park Service, we are unable to conclusively confirm or deny their suggestion."
Yesterday, the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, issued a report estimating that the rule would ease the way for the construction of 28 new coal-fired power plants within 186 miles of 10 national parks. In each of the next 50 years, the report concludes, the new plants would emit a total of 122 million tons of carbon dioxide, 79,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 52,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 4,000 pounds of toxic mercury into the air over and around the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion and eight other national parks.
"It's like if you're pulled over by a cop for going 75 miles per hour in a 55 miles-per-hour zone, and you say, 'If you look at how I've driven all year, I've averaged 55 miles per hour,' " said Mark Wenzler, director of the National Parks Conservation Association's clean-air programs. "It allows you to vastly underestimate the impact of these emissions."
Don Shepherd, an environmental engineer at the Park Service's air resources division in Denver, said of the new rule, "I don't know of anyone at our level, who deals with this day to day, that likes it or thinks it's going to make sense.
"We really want to have clean air at national parks all the time, and not just at average times," Shepherd said in a telephone interview. "All of our national parks have impaired visibility. . . . It would really be a setback in trying to make progress."
While the government has made progress in reducing haze-producing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution in recent decades, many of the nation's best-known parks still have poor visibility and air quality.
In October, the Park Service published a 10-year analysis of air quality trends that found that sulfate concentrations in precipitation have declined on the East Coast because of the federal acid rain program, but that Western parks have not experienced similar reductions. The concentrations of ozone smog over an eight-hour period are worsening across almost all of the interior West, including "some of the most remote places in the nation," said Vicki Patton, deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Jim Renfro, an air resources specialist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the park is suffering from a host of pollution problems, including smog and sulfur and nitrogen deposition. Visibility on summer days is 15 miles, rather than the nearly 80 it used to be, and the park now does not meet federal smog standards.
"There are some days when it's unhealthy to breathe at the park, so that's a major concern. People come here to get away, and they can't believe that sometimes they're better off where they came from," Renfro said. "We've got a long way to go."
Power plant emissions are also affecting vegetation and wildlife, making streams in Shenandoah more acidic and stripping nutrients out of the soil that sustains spruce firs at the Great Smoky Mountains' higher elevations. The Great Smokies have the highest levels of acid deposition of any monitored area in North America.
Georgia Murray, a staff scientist at the Appalachian Mountain Club, an outdoor recreation and advocacy group, said emissions will have to drop significantly for ecosystems on the East Coast to improve. "It's the type of pollution that takes years to recover from," she said.
Holmstead, however, said the administration's Clean Air Interstate Rule, implemented in 2005, will ultimately reduce pollution nationwide.
"What you want to do is reduce the total amount that comes out of these power plants," Holmstead said. "There's no Class 1 area in the country that is only affected by a nearby power plant."