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Historic Plan to Curb Grand Canyon Smog Approved

Pollution: Seven Western states and four Indian tribes back the accord, which seeks to eliminate 10% of the man-made haze over 30 years.

June 11, 1996|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

With the hazy Grand Canyon as their backdrop, leaders from seven Western states and four Native American tribes Monday endorsed a far-reaching set of recommendations to lift the veil of air pollution from some of America's most spectacular vistas.

The historic vote on the 70-point plan, culminating four years of consensus-building, aims to reduce the pollution that often cuts visibility in half at the Grand Canyon and 15 other national parks and wilderness areas on the Colorado Plateau.

The governors and tribal leaders said the strategy would protect the region's famed views, which visitors frequently see as if peering through an unfocused camera, while minimizing the economic impacts.

Although modest in its goal of eliminating 10% of the haze over the next three decades, the environmental accord is considered remarkable given the disparate participants and an anti-regulation fervor in many of the states.

"I don't expect we'll see a dramatic improvement in the near term in the Grand Canyon, but this is a turning point," Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said Monday. "Over the next 40 years, there will be a measurable difference [in visibility] than if we had not acted."

By signing the bipartisan pact, the governors are taking the unprecedented steps of recommending air pollution measures for an array of urban and rural sources in their own states--some of which are unaccustomed to such efforts. They also are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enact stringent national emission limits on cars, buses and trucks.

Leavitt, who chaired Monday's meeting, said the agreement has "substantial national importance" because the recommendations were devised by Western industries, environmentalists and governments, instead of being mandated from Washington.

"It's the first time where a group of Western states and stakeholders got together and said, 'We have a problem and here's what we're going to do about it,' " said Patti Shwayder, executive director of Colorado's health and environment agency, voting on behalf of Gov. Roy Romer.

Nevada was the only member of the Grand Canyon Visibility Transport Commission to vote against the strategy. The state rejected mandatory limits on sulfur emissions from power plants and other major industries; it also suggested that there was too little focus on cleaning up road dust and emissions from Mexico, which combined cause about half of the parks' haze.

Implementing much of the plan now falls to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has 18 months under the Clean Air Act to enact measures. Many actions, however, rest with the commission members: California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai and Acoma Pueblo tribes.

"It's the beginning of a real relationship on all of these issues, instead of everyone taking potshots at us," said Felicia Marcus, the EPA's western regional administrator. "I've never felt so welcome [by] a group of state leaders in my life."

California Air Resources Board Chairman John Dunlap welcomed the other states' support for pollution controls that will help combat California's own smog. Twenty-one percent of the Grand Canyon's man-made haze comes from the Los Angeles region, the commission's analysis shows.

Industry, environmentalists and local officials haggled for months, and talks nearly broke down, before they finally reached the consensus to tackle one of the country's most daunting air pollution problems.

Sierra Club lobbyist John White said the recommendations are not aggressive enough but, given the politics of the region, are an encouraging sign. "If these collective sets of action were taken, we think we can prevent the canyon visibility from degrading further," he said.

The most controversy focuses on a large coal-fired power plant in Laughlin, Nev., operated by Southern California Edison. The plant, which has no air pollution control equipment, emits 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually--the largest single uncontrolled source upwind of the Grand Canyon.

After intense lobbying by Edison, the commission decided against recommending pollution controls at the plant and instead advised the utility and the EPA to work out a solution over the next two years.

Among the major recommendations:

* National emission standards should be set to cut hydrocarbons from cars by 70% in 2001 and exhaust from diesel trucks and buses by 50% in 2004.

* Power plants and major industries have voluntarily agreed to cut sulfur emissions 13% by 2000 and 50% to 70% by 2040. If they fail to comply, mandatory pollution "caps" should be enforced, although the companies could buy and sell pollution credits.

* States, tribes, and private and federal landowners will set limits on emissions from prescribed burning of lands.

* States should seek solar, wind and other renewable energy sources to supply 10% of the region's electricity by 2005 and 20% by 2015.

* The governors and federal government should assist Mexico in pollution control, including use of money set aside by NAFTA and other international treaties.

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