Do the Smokies Really Need More Smoke?

George W. Bush certainly seems to think so. The Washington Post recently reported that the Bush Administration is changing the way air pollution is measured around protected areas such as parks and wildernesses. Under the old rules, violations occurred whenever the levels of pollutants in the air exceeded legal limits for longer than a certain period of time, anywhere from a few hours to a whole day. Under the new rules, set to go into effect this summer, the measurements for an entire year would be averaged together, and a violation would only occur if the average level of pollution for the whole year exceeds the limits set under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration claims that the new rules are more consistent, but many EPA staffers agree that the changes will significantly weaken the protections our natural parks currently enjoy under the Clean Air Act, and make it easier for power plants to be built nearby.

What's the problem with using a yearly average to determine emissions violations? Well, most of the emissions threatening the national parks come from coal-fired power plants, and the demand for power moves up and down throughout the year. You can see this happening in your own home by looking at how your electric bill changes with the seasons. It's the same in homes all across the country. Sudden spikes in demand, from a heat wave for example, cause power plants to work much harder and produce more emissions. Under the old rules, emission-producing power plants located upwind from Class 1 areas had to be far enough away that they wouldn't violate clean air standards even during times of peak demand. Under the new rules, as long as the yearly average is under the limit, they are perfectly legal. If you happen to be in the park during peak demand and find yourself unable to breathe or see the scenery through a haze of smog, too bad. Come back when air quality is "average!"

But wait, there's more… As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, the proposed revisions contain 3 other significant changes, none of them positive. The EPA is also planning to:

  • Exclude from pollution estimates output from existing industrial emitters that have been granted variances
  • Switch from calculating emissions using the two most recent years of data to any time period "more representative" of normal operations
  • Grant discretion to state regulators to use whatever data and information in their judgment would be most reliable in calculating emissions
Let's look at each of these proposed revisions one at a time, shall we? First of all, the EPA is planning to exclude emissions caused by existing polluters from their pollution estimates for Class 1 areas, if the companies in question have been granted a variance. How is this new procedure supposed to produce accurate estimates? Variances do not make pollution go away. In fact, companies that have variances are required to meet less-stringent guidelines, so they pollute more than companies following the standard Class 1 guidelines. This revision will cause the EPA's pollution estimates to be lower than the actual level of pollution in many areas.

The EPA uses these pollution estimates to decide whether or not to approve new sources of pollution near Class 1 areas. Lowballing these estimates will make it easier for companies to get approval for new power plants, factories, and other sources of industrial air pollution near protected land.

Moving on to the next revision... If the past two years are not "representative of normal operations," then how are we defining "normal operations?" Five years ago? Ten?

The third change to the EPA's rules gives state regulators the authority to cherry-pick the data that they want to use to calculate emissions. What if their "best judgment" is clouded by ties to big business or by political pressure to allow companies to build near the parks? I'm sure many, if not most, of the state regulators making these decisions are honest, intelligent, and capable -- but the potential for abuse is there.

Visitors to national parks and wilderness areas expect and deserve to see clean, unspoiled natural areas. They also expect and deserve to breathe clean air while they are in the park. Even under current regulations, these expectations are often disappointed. For example, a 2006 study by the National Parks Conservation Association found that 150 of 390 national parks have unhealthy levels of pollution in the air. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the National Park Service reports that visibility has declined from 93 miles to only 25 miles. The website also reports that ozone pollution in the park has reached levels that are unhealthy for trees -- and humans! Other threats to the park caused by air pollution include acid rain, acid clouds and excess nitrogen.

People go to parks and wilderness areas to experience the majesty of unspoiled nature. That's hard to do through a haze of smog. Of course, this type of environmental malfeasance is par for the course for the Bush administration. Hopefully, the next President of the United States will be willing and able to undo the damage. In the meantime, the countdown is on....

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  • Posted on May 30, 2008. Listed in:

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