Conservation groups filed comments this week opposing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to exempt power plants from rules that improve air quality in national parks and wilderness areas and protect public health from the damaging effects of haze pollution. As written, the current EPA proposal would allow major polluters to skip emission reduction technology upgrades.
Thick layer of air pollution above the San Joaquin Valley, as viewed from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Richard Cain / NPS)
Earthjustice filed the comments on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club. The groups stress that the proposed Clean Air Act exemption, which would apply in the 28 states subject to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) would significantly set back long overdue progress on cleaning up air quality across many of the nation’s most treasured public lands.
“To protect America’s scenic natural areas the EPA must change its proposed revisions to guarantee that coal-fired power plants are fully cleaned up for the benefit of our parks, our health, and the economic vitality of gateway communities that depend on tourism and recreation,” said Earthjustice Coal Program Director Abigail Dillen. “Haze pollution contributes to heart attacks, asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, respiratory illness and even premature death.”
Haze forming pollutants are known to cause serious health problems. EPA has estimated that in 2015, the Regional Haze Rule will prevent 1,600 premature deaths, 2,200 non-fatal heart attacks, 960 hospital admissions, and over 1 million lost school and work days benefits valued at $8.4–$9.8 billion annually.
“Thirty-five years ago, a bipartisan Congress recognized the importance of clean air in our nation’s most treasured public lands like Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks,” said NPCA Clean Air Counsel Stephanie Kodish. “By mandating the cleanup of outdated coal plants and other polluting facilities near these areas, Congress sought to guarantee access to fresh, clear, clean air for future generations of Americans. It is the EPA’s obligation to fulfill the promises made in the Clean Air Act, instead of making proposals that would undermine this important legislation.”
The health of national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges across the eastern U.S. states, and of the communities that depend on them, could be in jeopardy if the EPA exempts some of the oldest and highest polluting coal-fired power plants from installing the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART).
"Our parks and public lands are a national treasure and we must ensure that they are protected from dirty and dangerous coal-fired pollution," said May Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. "These places should stand as an example of America’s best work to ensure a clean and healthy future for our children, our communities and our wild places. We call on the EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act for all polluters in order to preserve these beautiful spaces and protect the people who call them home."
EPA’s own data shows that visibility is impaired “virtually all the time at most national park and wilderness areas.” Visibility in the western United States is about 60–100 miles, or half to two-thirds what it would be without human-caused air pollution. In the eastern United States, the average visual range is less than 20 miles, or approximately one-fifth of the visibility range under natural conditions.