A new report out by U.S. Chamber of Commerce today attacks important clean air rules to clean up dirty air pollution in our national parks and wilderness areas, according to conservation groups. Decades after Congress required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states to take necessary steps to cut haze pollution in national parks and wilderness areas, “EPA’s New Regulatory Front: Regional Haze and the Takeover of State Programs,” contends an effort to clean up antiquated coal-fired power plants imposes unreasonable cleanup costs on coal-fired power plants.
Above: A clear day. Below: A hazy day.
“National parks and wilderness areas were set aside as our country’s most treasured places—natural wonders like Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Everglades, where all Americans can get away to enjoy fresh air and inspiring scenery,” said Mark Wenzler, NPCA Vice President of Climate and Clean Air. “Unfortunately, by the mid-1970s, many of our national parks had become as polluted as the cities people were escaping from, with thick haze enshrouding the scenery and endangering visitors’ health.”
The report claims that haze cleanup requirements do nothing to improve health or visibility in national parks and wilderness areas. However, EPA’s analysis shows that compliance with the Regional Haze Rule will demonstrably improve air quality, with an overall positive economic benefit that is estimated between $8.4 to $9.8 billion in health benefits. Other studies show that eliminating haze in national parks from power plants alone would result in $5.62 billion in increased tourism dollars. The same pollutants that cause visibility impairment also contribute to very serious health damage like lung and heart disease, asthma attacks, and premature death. EPA estimated that in 2015, full implementation of the Regional Haze Rule nationally will prevent 1,600 premature deaths, 2,200 non-fatal heart attacks, 960 hospital admissions, and more than 1 million lost school and work days.
EPA is now finally in the process of complying with the Clean Air Act and its own regional haze rules. Haze cleanup plans are being completed that address requirements for antiquated coal-fired power plants to finally do what Congress specified 35 years ago—install modern emissions control technology that will help restore clean, clear, healthy air to America’s most treasured national parks and wilderness areas. While these plans are not uniformly sufficient to mitigate air pollution impacts to Class I areas, EPA’s measured steps and final actions are in itself a milestone.
“For decades, EPA has ignored pressing needs to address air pollution in our national parks.” said Abigail Dillen, an Earthjustice attorney. “Now is not the time to slow down overdue cleanups of coal-fired power plants and factories that blight the landscape and harm park visitors’ health.”
The recently released U.S. Chamber of Commerce report claims that EPA has not given states sufficient time to update technology and clean up dirty power plants. However, the haze cleanup plans now being completed are five years past the 2007 deadline set in the Regional Haze Rule. Thirteen years ago states were put on notice of their obligations in the 1999 Regional Haze Rule, and 22 years ago Congress told EPA and states to cut regional haze by requiring BART on antiquated coal plants and factories. The current regulations give industries that must install controls five years to install required controls.
In 1977 Congress reacted to rapidly declining air quality with overwhelming bipartisan support by mandating the restoration of clean, clear air in 156 of America’s most treasured national parks and wilderness areas (known as “Class I” areas). This mandate requires EPA and states to take specific steps to cut haze pollution from specific polluters impairing Class I areas. One of the measures Congress specified was for EPA and states to require the “best available retrofit technology” (“BART”) to cut emissions at outdated coal-fired power plants and other industrial factories that were known to be spewing pollution into Class I parks and wilderness areas.
In spite of the near universal non-compliance with Regional Haze Rule deadlines, EPA has stepped in to write its own plan in only a handful of states with the most egregious lack of compliance. To date, EPA has finalized only four plans—with just seven more proposed—replacing parts of a state’s proposal in instances where the impacts on Class I areas have been demonstrated to be significant; where technology to clean up pollution sources has been deemed cost effective, feasible and available; and where the state has failed to take any or any meaningful action that would result in required Clean Air Act improvements in Class I air quality. Three of these 11 plans are for jurisdictions that proposed no plan of their own. In addition, the EPA has finalized a required technical change that does not impose any new conditions in 12 states.