Groups Go to Court to Force Cleanup of Air Pollution in National Parks

Lawsuit charges illegal delays in cleaning up parks' haze pollution


Jennifer Chavez/Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500


As autumn foliage season reaches its peak, clean air advocates are going to court to make sure visitors to national parks can enjoy scenic vistas free of the yellowish haze caused by industrial pollution. The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed a lawsuit today on behalf of Environmental Defense Fund and National Parks Conservation Association over the failure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce deadlines for the states to adopt Clean Air Act plans to restore scenic vistas in our national parks.

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, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainier, Sequoia and Yosemite.

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

“Enforcing the nation’s clean air laws will help clear the air for the millions of Americans who treasure our national parks,” said Kevin Lynch, attorney for Environmental Defense Fund based in Colorado. “Cleaning up industrial smokestack pollution is one of the single most important steps EPA can take to protect America’s health and our national parks.”

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. Nearly a year later, only about 14 states and other jurisdictions have submitted plans. EPA has not made the required findings of whether those plans are adequate and complete. 

“Millions of Americans visit national parks each year to breathe clean, fresh air and enjoy the majestic vistas,” said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez. “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 vacations.”

For a map of national parks with links to air quality data and photos of visibility conditions at parks nationwide, please visit:

A copy of the lawsuit filed today in federal district court is available here:


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