The US Environmental Protection Agency acted illegally in extending the deadline for states to control air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas, a federal court indicated today. The ruling came in a suit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club challenging EPA's regional haze rules. The suit charged that the rules unlawfully allowed multi-year extensions of the deadline for states to adopt plans to clean up haze caused by air pollution in scenic areas throughout the nation. The court held that the extension appeared to violate the Clean Air Act, and sent the rules back to EPA for reconsideration.
Air pollution clouds the skies of national parks and wilderness areas the majority of the time, according to federal reports. The problem affects such national treasures as Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks. The Clean Air Act required EPA to adopt rules 20 years ago that would ensure progress toward achieving natural visibility conditions in these areas. Although EPA finally adopted rules three years ago, it gave states until as late as 2008 to adopt plans to clean up air pollution in the parks and wilderness sites that are within their borders. As a result of today's court ruling, the deadline for these plans could be moved up by three years or more. "There should be no more delays cleaning up the dirty air in these majestic places," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "It's time to move forward so that people can enjoy unpolluted views in national parks and wilderness areas. People should not have to worry about breathing polluted, unhealthful air when they go to a national park."
According to the National Park Service, average visual range in most of the western United States is about one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without man-made air pollution. In most of the East, the average visual range is about one-fifth of what it would be under natural conditions. The haze problem is caused by inadequately controlled pollution emissions from power plants, factories, motor vehicles, and other sources.
"It's time to put an end to foot-dragging in cleaning up the air in our national parks and wilderness areas," said Dr. Robert Palzer, a Sierra Club clean air activist. "These special places were set aside for the enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations."
On other issues, the court rejected an industry challenge to a portion of the rule setting a goal of achieving "natural visibility conditions" in parks and wilderness areas. The court also upheld a requirement for no further degradation of visibility on the cleanest days.
The court also ruled in favor of an industry objection to a requirement that industrial plants built during a certain time period be required to install new controls to reduce air pollution. The court ordered EPA to give states the option of relaxing this requirement for individual plants based on their relative contribution to visibility impairment. Baron expressed disappointment in the court's ruling on this issue, but urged EPA to move quickly to address the court's concern. "EPA should act immediately to resolve the outstanding issues so that everyone can begin to enjoy the scenic views our natural places have to offer," said Baron.
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