As summer vacation season enters full swing, clean air advocates are fighting to make sure visitors to national parks can enjoy scenic vistas free of the yellowish haze caused by industrial pollution.
The 1977 Clean Air Act set a national goal of cleaning up dirty air in major national parks and wilderness areas. Decades later, only a small handful of states have submitted legally required plans to comply. The result: power plant and factory emissions continue to obscure views of beloved landmarks in national parks across the country including Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Big Bend, Acadia, Sequoia, and Yosemite.
The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice today filed formal legal notice of intent to sue on behalf of Environmental Defense Fund and National Parks Conservation Association over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's failure to enforce deadlines for the states to adopt these clean air plans.
"The millions of Americans visiting our national parks expect clean air and clear views," said Kevin Lynch, attorney for Environmental Defense Fund. "Today's legal action will jumpstart real world solutions to address the industrial air pollution at our national treasures."
According to the National Park Service, human-caused air pollution reduces visibility in most national parks throughout the country. Average visual range -- the farthest a person can see on a given day -- in most of the western United States is now about one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without man-made air pollution (about 140 miles). In most of the east, the average visual range is about one-fifth of what it would be under natural conditions (about 90 miles).
The Clean Air Act required states to submit enforceable plans to EPA by last December to clean up hazy skies in parks and wilderness areas. Today, more than six months later, only five have submitted plans. The Earthjustice letter gives notice of intent to sue EPA unless the agency enforces the deadline against delinquent states within 60 days.
"Millions of Americans visit national parks each year to breathe clean, fresh air and enjoy the majestic vistas," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "When you can't see the mountains and canyons under all the filthy haze, it's time for EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act."
Much of the pollution problem comes from old power plants and factories with outdated pollution controls. Emissions from these plants can travel hundreds of miles, contributing to regional haze that obscures scenic vistas over large areas. Each state's clean air plan must include rules to limit these emissions, limits that will not only reduce haze in scenic areas but also improve overall air quality.
"Family memories of our national parks shouldn't be clouded by polluted haze" said Mark Wenzler, director of Clean Air and Climate Programs at National Parks Conservation Association. "EPA needs to take seriously its obligation to ensure clear skies for all Americans who seek out our national parks for healthy summer vacations."
Instead of moving to clean up dirty air in the parks, the Bush administration has proposed to weaken pollution rules for new factories and power plants seeking to build upwind of national parks. According to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association, these rules would make it easier for developers to build at least two dozen new plants that would threaten air quality in at least 10 national parks, including Virginia's Shenandoah, Colorado's Mesa Verde and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt national parks. For more information, see NPCA's report at www.npca.org/darkhorizons.
For a map of national parks with links to air quality data and photos of visibility conditions at parks nationwide, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/air/visibility/monitor.html
Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.