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Clean Air Dispute Shrouds North Dakota

U.S. contends coal-fired power plants have increased sulfur dioxide levels in ecologically sensitive areas. The state believes otherwise.

October 26, 2003|Curt Woodward | Associated Press Writer

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, N.D. — Is North Dakota's air clean enough? The answer depends who you ask.

Ron Patch, who monitors air quality for the state from stations like this one at the edge of Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, says the sulfur dioxide readings he gets are "always pretty much zero." The only surprises he encounters on the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are the occasional bison wandering by.

Reports from outposts like this have led the state to assert that North Dakota has some of the cleanest air in the country. According to state data, air quality has actually improved since the late 1970s, said Terry O'Clair, director of the state Health Department's air quality division.

But federal officials disagree. The Environmental Protection Agency says sulfur dioxide levels are increasing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, about 50 miles northwest of Minot. Both parks are among North Dakota's most environmentally sensitive areas.

According to the EPA, coal-fired power plants have pumped at least 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air in North Dakota in recent years -- 60,000 tons more than federal standards permit.

Sulfur dioxide creates a visible haze and can cause respiratory problems and permanently damage lung tissues. Sulfur dioxide is also a component of acid rain, which harms streams and lakes, and can affect soil and vegetation.

If the EPA concludes that its statistics are right and the state's are wrong, existing coal facilities may have to invest millions of dollars on pollution controls.

That worries Dennis Hill, general manager of the North Dakota Assn. of Rural Electric Cooperatives. An EPA requirement to cut sulfur dioxide might also prompt energy companies to take their development projects elsewhere -- including new electric plants and a proposed new mine for a type of coal called lignite, Hill said.

State Health Department officials say the EPA's computer modeling of pollution ignores data from air monitoring stations like the one near Painted Canyon.

O'Clair said the highly sensitive equipment would pick up increased levels of the pollutant.

"We're challenging the EPA that you should be looking at what's happening out there," O'Clair said. "We fully expect that emissions from a power plant would be seen," including some plants in Montana and Canada.

The EPA maintains that the state's measurements are "fundamentally flawed," said Richard Long, director of the EPA's regional air and radiation program in Denver. "It defies science to understand why you can have a huge increase in emissions and not have a significant deterioration in air quality."

The debate between the state and federal government over air pollution in North Dakota has inched along since 1999.

Long said the review of North Dakota's air-quality standards is probably the most contentious such proceeding he's seen.

"Never before has a state pushed back and said that they didn't think that there was a problem," he said.

Federal regulators must maintain uniform air-quality standards throughout the nation and can't allow each state to come up with its own definition of harmful pollution, Long added.

"The state has really gone beyond the limits of how you can stretch this," he said.

Health officials in other states are also closely watching the dispute. Montana, Wyoming and Utah could face similar issues in developing coal resources, O'Clair said.

The EPA has asked to extend the negotiations until Oct. 31. Both sides had hoped to reach agreement by the end of August.

EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Kerrigan Clough, who requested the latest extension, said the agencies are looking for a true measure of air pollution in North Dakota, not a compromise.

Clough said officials from both agencies call each other almost every day.

"These are very complicated issues," he said. "We want to have due diligence in making sure that we really study the issue well."

EPA officials in Washington have begun helping with negotiations. North Dakota officials recently met with Jeff Holmstead, the agency's assistant administrator, to lay out the scope of the dispute.

Officials from North Dakota and the EPA regional office also planned another meeting with the EPA in Washington, Clough said.

"It shows that they are continuing to take a look at the various issues," Glatt said. "We're hopeful that we'll come to a resolution on this."

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