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The Nation

Plan to Cut Pollution at National Parks Gains

Environment: The EPA says it intends to back a proposal to reduce emissions from power plants in the West.

April 26, 2002|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to clear away a veil of haze from the West's premier national parks, the Bush administration announced Thursday that it intends to approve plans to slash emissions from power plants and other sources.

At a meeting in Salt Lake City sponsored by the Western Governors Assn., Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman endorsed a pollution-control plan formulated by a partnership of nine states, Indian tribes and environmental groups over the last decade. The plan aims to cut pollutants that obscure visibility at many national parks and wilderness areas.

"I believe the plan that the partnership has presented is an innovative approach to improving air quality, and EPA shares goals of protecting some of America's most treasured national parks and wilderness areas," Whitman said.

Among the celebrated landscapes expected to benefit from the plan are Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.

Smoke from power plants, smelters and factories dotting the West is a major source of haze that dramatically impairs visibility and rains acids on fragile ecosystems.

The decision comes as the White House and Congress consider measures to change the way power plants are regulated nationwide. While most of that debate is focused on power plants in the Midwest, the plan Whitman endorsed ensures significant pollution cuts will be made at coal-fired generators across the West over the next 16 years.

However, the need for stringent controls at the power plants has been tempered by the need to ensure the plan is palatable to Western businesses and politicians.

The plan Whitman endorsed calls on power producers to voluntarily reduce smokestack emissions. States, too, can opt out of the program completely if they choose, although the EPA expects compliance to be high because alternative control programs would likely be more onerous. The plan affects power producers operating in California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

If power producers fail to meet voluntary pollution reduction targets, the plan calls for launching an emission trading program under which polluters can buy and sell pollution credits. Companies that fail to meet their targets can buy credits from the ones that cut emissions beyond what is required.

The plan defers the most aggressive reductions for more than a decade, allowing the power plants and smelters to continue to produce emissions near today's levels through 2013. And it addresses only sulfur oxides. Other haze-forming emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, are not scheduled for controls at these power plants until 2008.

"It's not the most aggressive piece of regulation you've ever seen, but there is much to be said for reaching this agreement through a consensus process," said an EPA official.

Yet, in a rare show of support for Bush administration environmental policies, environmentalists endorsed the program and praised Whitman for supporting it.

"This is a real step in the right direction. It's a big step, it's significant and it's praiseworthy," said Fred Krupp, executive director of Environmental Defense, an advocacy group.

The plan calls for cutting sulfur oxide emissions by 26% over the next 16 years. Today, dozens of power plants across the West release 650,000 tons of the pollutant annually. Big smokestacks emit it high into the air, where it spreads far, reducing visibility by half in some national parks. Some of the oldest power plants have no emission controls. Emissions from those generators would be reduced by about 85% by the end of the program, the EPA said.

Environmentalists are particularly pleased with a provision that allows no more than 480,000 tons of sulfur oxides by 2018, regardless of how many power plants are operating in the West. Clean-air advocates said that amounts to a pollution cap that ensures reductions will continue even as power plants are built.

To meet rising energy needs in California and other Western states, power companies have proposed adding up to 50,000 megawatts of new electrical generation across the West. Environmentalists said the plan guarantees those new generators and boilers will not generate dirtier air in the future.

"This is a safety net for the West. It causes emissions to continue to go down. There's no other driver in the West to get this done," said Vicki Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense.

By signaling her intent to approve the plan, Whitman's decision ends an effort begun in 1990 to devise a solution to regional haze that affected 156 national parks and wilderness areas across the Colorado Plateau.

The public has 60 days to submit comments to the EPA on the plan, and a public meeting is scheduled for early June in Phoenix.

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