Flawed EPA Air Pollution Plan for “Scenic Landscape” States Challenged by Clean Air Advocates

New federal policy allows some coal-fired power plants to continue spewing haze-causing emissions


Jenny Harbine, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699


Stephanie Kodish, National Parks Conservation Association, (865) 329-2424


Eitan Bencuya, Sierra Club, (202) 495-3047


Christopher Thomas, HEAL Utah, (801) 364-5110


Shannon Anderson, Powder River Basin Resource Council, (307) 672-5809

Conservation and public health groups seeking to restore clear skies over some of our nation’s most scenic landscapes filed a challenge today with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver against plans approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that allow coal-fired power plants in Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming to escape federal requirements to reduce their emissions of haze-causing pollutants. The plans create a giant loophole in EPA rules designed to limit sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, which not only obscure visibility in our most spectacular protected lands, but also contribute to serious illnesses.

Haze in Grand Canyon National Park. (EPA)
Above: A clear day
Below: A hazy day.

EPA’s plans exempt Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming from air pollution rules that would otherwise require them to reduce SO2 emissions from eight coal-fired power plants to decrease pollution in the region’s national parks and wilderness areas, including Grand Canyon National Park. The exemptions are being challenged by HEAL Utah, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Powder River Basin Resource Council, and Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice.

“From Bandelier National Monument to Grand Teton and Canyonlands national parks, the three states exempting major polluters are home to some of the most treasured protected areas in the nation,” said NPCA Clean Air Counsel Stephanie Kodish. “People expect these precious places to have clean air and it is the responsibility of states and EPA to require real reductions in SO2 to ensure that the air is clear for present and future generations.”

The federal regional haze program requires states to develop plans that assure reasonable progress toward meeting the national goal of restoring natural visibility conditions to national parks and wilderness areas by reducing manmade pollution, such as SO2. The eight plants identified in the three exempt states emit SO2 at rates that are, in some cases, greater than twice the rates that EPA has found necessary and achievable for other coal plants across the country.

“The Clean Air Act requires industry to clean up and improve visibility for our nation’s most iconic parks,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, one of the attorneys handling the case. “Industrial sources of pollution across the country are using technology to limit their emissions of haze-causing sulfur dioxide, and there is no excuse for not requiring the same technology on power plants that pollute Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks, and some of our other most scenic federal lands.”

The pollutants that cause haze in our national parks are the same pollutants that contribute to heart attacks, asthma attacks and emergency room visits for asthma, chronic bronchitis and respiratory illness. Health related costs from hospital admissions, lost work days, and premature death are the hidden price of continued pollution.

In 1977, Congress set a national goal of clean, haze-free air in our country’s treasured national parks and wilderness areas so Americans could enjoy the views and breathe clean air. But EPA and the states have repeatedly dragged their feet and delayed complying with the law.

In contrast with its actions in other states, EPA has approved a plan for Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming that exempts some of the oldest and dirtiest pollution sources from reducing their visibility-impairing emissions of SO2. Ironically, EPA approved the plan under a provision of the Clean Air Act that recognizes Grand Canyon National Park as a special place that is particularly in need of solutions to improve visibility. EPA’s action unfortunately fails to live up to the goal of protecting and improving the scenic vistas enjoyed by millions of Americans at Grand Canyon and other magnificent federal lands.

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