In an effort to improve protection of air quality in national parks and wilderness areas across the country, Earthjustice, on behalf of Environmental Defense, has filed a petition seeking to force the Environmental Protection Agency to finally correct flaws identified in its regulations by a federal court more than thirteen years ago.
The EPA is decades behind the schedule laid out by the Clean Air Act for adopting adequate limits for nitrogen oxides, pollutants that degrade scenic vistas and revered ecosystems throughout the nation. In response to a previous lawsuit by Environmental Defense, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ordered EPA in 1990 to review and revise its inadequate regulations. Thirteen years later, EPA has failed to act.
“Thirteen years have passed with no action while air quality and visibility in the Nation’s most treasured natural areas continue to decline,” said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Kefer. “We are simply asking the EPA to take responsibility for our air and implement the limits set forth by the Clean Air Act.”
Under the Clean Air Act, areas where the air meets federal standards must be protected from additional pollution. The Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program restricts allowable pollution increases in these regions, and enforces pollution standards through a review and permit system for all pollution sources of a certain size. To obtain a PSD permit, new or expanded factories and power plants must demonstrate that their emissions will not cause air quality to deteriorate beyond the allowable level.
“This program ensures that the floor established by the federal standards does not, in fact, become the ceiling,” Kefer explained.
Environmental Defense’s previous lawsuit challenged significant deficiencies in EPA’s existing PSD limits for nitrogen oxides (NOx). In 1990, the DC Circuit court agreed that EPA had failed to comply with the law, and instructed EPA to reconsider its rules, but the agency still has not done so.
Nitrogen oxide pollution emitted by power plants and other industrial facilities contributes to air quality degradation throughout the Nation. Contaminants discharged from tall smokestacks at these facilities are carried downwind and contribute significantly to air pollution problems in premier natural areas such as national parks and wilderness areas.
“In some of the most revered areas in the West — from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon — smog levels are worsening and ecosystems are threatened by rising industrial pollution levels,” said Vickie Patton, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense. “EPA was directed by a federal court of appeals to put in place sensible measures to guard against these worsening air pollution levels but has dropped the ball.”
According to the National Park Service, ozone pollution (caused by nitrogen oxides) is worsening in national parks throughout the country, including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks. The National Park Service concludes that air pollution currently impairs visibility to some degree in every National Park, with the average visual range in most of the Western U.S. now about one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without manmade air pollution. In most of the East, the average visual range is about one-fifth of what it would be under natural conditions.
The petition asks the Court to order EPA to adopt adequate pollution limits within the next two years.