Despite repeated warnings by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that pollution from the new plant would impair visibility in Yellowstone and the U.L. Bend Wilderness Area in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, administration officials approved the Roundup Power Plant in central Montana.
In response, several conservation groups today filed suit in Washington, D.C., to compel the U.S. Department of Interior to protect air quality in America's first national park.
"This was a decision to ignore the scientists who actually understand how to predict impacts on air quality and visibility," said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with Earthjustice, who is representing the plaintiff conservation groups the National Parks Conservation Association, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and The Wilderness Society.
"We could have clean air in Yellowstone, a clean plant, and jobs for more Montanans," said Tony Jewett of the National Parks Conservation Association. "But D.C. politicians are trading away clean air. It's a shameful episode that undermines these places that belong to all Montanans and Americans."
In December 2002, air experts at the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the proposed Roundup plant would be "a significant contributor" to adverse visibility impacts "severe in both frequency and magnitude" in Yellowstone and U.L. Bend. Accordingly, the Interior Department issued a formal finding of "adverse impact" under the Clean Air Act.
Although this "adverse impact" finding should have legally required Roundup to reduce or offset its emissions, senior officials at the Interior Department immediately agreed to review the finding in response to complaints from the Roundup Power Company. Agency air experts undertook further analysis and again concluded that pollution from Roundup would impair visibility at Yellowstone and U.L. Bend. Nevertheless, after a conference call with the power company, Interior officials sent a letter withdrawing the adverse impact finding and allowing the project to proceed as planned.
"National Park Service specialists outlined potential pollution-control measures for the new power plant that would have protected Yellowstone's air. But the administration overrode the recommendations of its own scientists, allowing the power company to avoid making changes that were essential to protect the park," said Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "It's just common sense that the federal government should require that any new power plant protect air quality and visibility in Yellowstone."
According to a briefing statement jointly released by the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, there were no air quality staff at "the Headquarters, Regional, refuge/park level who were aware that this decision had been reached or that such a letter had been sent," even though agency scientists repeatedly expressed "serious concerns about impacts from this project on visibility at nearby Class I areas." The Clean Air Act prohibits any degradation of air quality in what should be the nation's cleanest areas, called Class I airsheds.
"This is a clear case where politics is trumping science," said Bob Ekey with The Wilderness Society. "The administration is ignoring its own experts in favor of an energy company, and at the expense of Americans and our first national park."