National parks: A missed deadline to curb haze
More than three decades after Congress ordered state and federal officials to clear the haze that obscures vistas from America's national parks and wilderness areas, progress has slowed to a near-halt.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to meet a deadline Saturday to approve most state plans aimed at curbing pollution from coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities in order to improve visibility at 156 federally-protected areas such as the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier and Shenandoah.
The agency hasn't formally approved any state plans — or come up with its own, as required — and won't do so by the deadline. "We will not have final federal plans in place by Jan. 15," the agency said in an e-mail to the Associated Press on Friday. It has proposed partial approval of Idaho's plan, a partial federal plan for New Mexico and a federal plan for the Four Corners area on tribal land.
The agency added that "there is progress in every state toward visibility improvements, reductions in harmful emissions and the development of state plans."
But Stephanie Kocish, a lawyer for the Washington-based National Parks Conservation Association, said the group next week will file a notice of intent to sue the EPA for missing the clean-p deadline, which, she said "has been pushed aside for too long."
Nearly three-quarters of states failed to meet an initial 2007 deadline to submit plans requiring decades-old facilities that contribute to haze at parks to update old equipment. So far, only 34 states have complied.
Until states file plans and the EPA approves them, companies aren't obligated to make changes under the haze rule. The EPA, however, says other clean air rules have provisions to protect parks and wilderness areas. The agency said it is working with states "to get their plans submitted and approved as quickly as possible."
The haze is caused by sulfates and nitrates from coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers, as well as automobiles; carbon from fires, and soot and windblown dust. The high cost of controlling emissions, legal battles, the complexity of rules, industry resistance and competing clean air rules have slowed progress in clearing it.
The 1977 Clean Air Act established a national goal to restore visibility in protected areas to conditions that would exist naturally, without pollution. But in eastern parks, average visibility has dropped from 90 miles to between 15 and 25 miles, while visual range in the West has been reduced from 140 miles to between 35 and 90 miles.
"When you think of national parks, you think of clean and clear air," said John Bunyak, policy chief of the National Park Service air resources division. "If you load up the kids in the family van and drive thousands of miles to the Grand Canyon and can't see the bottom of the canyon, that to me is a problem."
Reducing pollutants to improve visibility also can yield public health benefits. Fine particles that cause haze are also linked to aggravated asthma, heart attacks and premature death.
Installing scrubbers and other pollution equipment, however, costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Industry officials say it would hike utility rates and cripple businesses. Even some states have concluded it's too expensive to require for some facilities, preferring alternatives such as low-sulfur coal.
But the rule "targets the oldest and the dirtiest coal plants," said Jeremy Nichols, energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "We have the technology to do better." After the group sued, a court order required the EPA to approve state plans — or come up with its own — for California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Oregon by June.
Park and forest officials question whether some states overestimate the costs of installing pollution devices and whether their plans make quick enough progress. Haze over Big Bend National Park in Texas or Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, for example, wouldn't be eliminated for more than a century.
Park and forest officials told Washington state last summer that its plan worsens air quality at North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness. The state's latest analysis, however, disputes that based on updated modeling.
In Oregon, faced with $500 million in proposed retrofits, Portland General Electric Co. has proposed shutting down the state's only coal-fired power plant, in Boardman, by 2020.
--- Margot Roosevelt, with Phuong Le/Associated Press
Photo: An inversion layer sits above the San Joaquin Valley in this early morning view from Beetle Rock in Sequoia National Park. As the heat of the day builds, the pollutants react with sunlight and the smog moves up into the national park, pushed by winds.
Credit: Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times