WASHINGTON — As part of a long-term strategy to clear the haze that hangs over national parks and wilderness areas, the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed guidelines to help states target the power plants and other industrial facilities that are largely to blame.
The proposal is aimed at the hundreds of power plants, steel mills, cement plants, metal smelters, chemical processors, petroleum refineries and other pollution producers built between 1962 and 1977, before the Clean Air Act started requiring pollution controls.
The proposed rule is designed to help meet the Clean Air Act requirement to restore the air above national parks and wilderness areas to their naturally clear states by 2064.
The proposal would help the states determine what older power plants and other industrial facilities add to the haze problem and what pollution controls they must install. The plants must be identified by 2008, and they must install pollution controls by 2014 or 2018.
The EPA was reluctant to estimate how many facilities would be cleaned up under its proposal, which is expected to be enacted next April.
Environmental groups said the plan's success would depend on how aggressively states implement it.
"The big question is whether the states will have the resolve to carry out the substantial reductions in haze forming pollution that the federal guidelines call for, especially from power plants," said Vickie Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group. "The guidelines give states wide latitude to decide in the end that some of these high-polluting sources that contribute to haze in national parks don't need to be cleaned up."
National parks and wilderness areas are often blanketed with white or brown haze caused when sunlight encounters tiny pollution particles in the air, the EPA said. The pollution can come from distant power plants.
The EPA estimates that the proposal will have the biggest impact on eastern parks such as Shenandoah in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, where the scenery often is shrouded in haze.
In the Smokies, for example, visibility has been reduced from an average of 113 miles under natural conditions to an average of 25 miles, primarily because of emissions from coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust.
Much of the haze-forming pollution over California's national parks and wilderness areas comes from cars, trucks, buses, farm equipment and construction machinery, so this proposal is not expected to have as big an impact in that state as in other parts of the country.
"In California, most of those plants have been cleaned up pretty effectively," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the state Air Resources Board.
The EPA stressed that the proposal would be in addition to other agency clean-air initiatives.
Among them is a plan, favored by the Bush administration, to limit the total pollution allowed from power plants in 28 Eastern states and allow the plants that reduce emissions faster than required to sell pollution "credits" to plants that are slower to clean up.
In fact, the agency suggested that the power plant proposal could supplant Friday's haze plan, at least for plants in those 28 states. That worries environmental groups, which believe that the haze rule is a key to cleaning up the parks, as the Clean Air Act requires.
"Our concern is that parks may eventually get shortchanged," said Jill Stephens, a program analyst for the National Parks Conservation Assn., a national advocacy group. "We want to make sure provisions in our air laws that protect parks are fully enforced and are not preempted."
Annette Sharp, technical director of the Central Regional Air Planning Assn., said she believes that the haze proposal will have a significant impact over the next 10 years in cleaning up the dirtiest industrial facilities in her region, which includes Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
Some plants will find it too expensive to clean up and will shut down, she said, but many others will install pollution controls.
But, she stressed, the goal of clear air over the national parks will not be realized for decades.
"We will all be working on this problem until 2064," Sharp said.