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Accord Reached to Reduce Levels of Haze at National Parks

August 20, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

The federal government must adopt new rules within two years to cut power-plant emissions under a legal agreement announced Tuesday that is intended to cut haze that obscures vistas at national parks and wilderness areas.

The agreement marks a significant expansion of a voluntary program already in place in many Western states to cut emissions that enshroud national parks. The program has been endorsed by the Bush administration.

Under the deal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must adopt rules for hundreds of aging power plants and factories nationwide that contribute to air pollution in parks.

Most of the benefits will accrue in the West, where the majority of the nation's parks -- including Glacier, Big Bend, Sequoia and Yosemite -- and wilderness areas are found. Pollution also diminishes scenic vistas in Eastern Seaboard reserves such as Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains and Acadia national parks.

"If well designed, the clean-air program required under this settlement will also help the millions of Americans that visit our national parks and live in surrounding regions breathe cleaner, healthier air," said Vickie Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy group and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

However, the EPA has broad discretion over the final form of the rules and how much time will be granted for cleanup.

The settlement directs the EPA to require existing power plants to add advanced pollution controls. Off-the-shelf technology exists to reduce haze-forming pollutants, including sulfur and nitrogen oxides and microscopic particles, by up to 90%, although it can cost millions of dollars to install such equipment at a single plant.

The EPA says it is on track to meet the court-ordered deadline for the new regulations. The agency says additional controls, including new standards for very tiny pollution particles and President Bush's Clear Skies initiative, will also help reduce pollution over national parks.

"The EPA is moving ahead to improve visibility and remove haze that shrouds our national parks and wild areas," said agency spokesman David Deegan.

Much of the haze comes from power plants built in the 1960s, many of which burn coal and lack certain emissions controls. Tall smokestacks spread pollutants for miles, contributing to "regional haze."

The distance a person can see on a given day in most Western states is about one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without man-made air pollution. In most of the East, the average is about one-fifth of what it would be under natural conditions, the National Park Service said.

"This settlement is a big step toward cleaning up the air in our national parks and wilderness areas," said David Baron, an attorney for Earthjustice, another plaintiff. "The law sets a national goal of clearing the skies in these special places for the enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations. The pollution limits required under this settlement are long overdue."

A federal appeals court blocked a previous EPA attempt to adopt such limits after an industry challenge, but the settlement reached in U.S. District Court in Washington this week resolves those concerns and requires the EPA to propose new rules by April 2004 and adopt them one year later.

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