The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday that it intends to take back from 34 states the responsibility of protecting the pristine air of national parks and wilderness areas.
The EPA said it was proposing the action because only two of the 36 states have taken steps necessary to protect the nation's scenic vistas in wilderness and park areas from industrial haze. In 1982, the states' performance became the subject of a lawsuit by environmentalists, which was settled out of court last April when the EPA agreed to come up with a plan to correct deficiencies.
The proposal runs directly counter to the Reagan administration's policy of handing off environmental responsibilities to the states, and EPA officials acknowledged that it would put the federal government back in the business of setting rules and issuing permits for air pollution -- a job most states have handled for years.
"They forfeited the opportunity," EPA spokesman Christian Rice said. "Now any new industry is going to have to get approval from the feds instead of the states."
Rice said he did not anticipate much reaction from industry representatives. Other officials said the move could have broad implications in the West, however, particularly in coal-mining areas.
Conservationists have long complained that massive strip-mine operations there throw tons of dust into the air, obscuring scenery in nearby national parks and forests. In recent years, complaints have grown louder as the administration pursued an aggressive policy of leasing federal coal tracts in the West.
At issue in this controversy is a provision in the Clean Air Act known as "prevention of significant deterioration." In simple terms, the provision was intended to prevent the nation's clean air from getting dirty.
The provision has come under fire in the Reagan administration, not just from the Republican White House but also from some midwestern and Sun Belt Democrats who believe that it imposes unreasonable restrictions on industrial growth. Efforts to weaken it, however, have fared no better than any other attempts to tinker with standards in the Clean Air Act.
In the waning days of the Carter administration, however, the EPA tried to put teeth in the provision, publishing new visibility requirements for 36 states near parks and wilderness areas. The states were supposed to develop plans to review potential new pollution sources and enforce the visibility rules.
"Of the 36 states required to develop and adopt plans, only Alaska's and Louisiana's plans have been approved," the EPA said yesterday.
The EPA said a national, rather than state-by-state, program would allow it to use monitoring facilities deployed by the Interior and Agriculture departments, which control wilderness and park areas.
Under the EPA's proposal, states have four months to devise their own programs before the EPA takes over. But the affected states "were fully aware that this was going to happen," Rice said, and their response generally has been to concede the agency's right to assert itself.
Rice acknowledged that the EPA, in undertaking the proposed program, would be handing itself a significant new regulatory burden.
"That's probably so," he said. "We'll have to issue the permits. Maybe that's why the states didn't want it."