New Report: Air Quality in the Smokies Is Headed in the Right Direction

The difference in pollution levels between 1990 and 2010 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The difference in pollution levels between 1990 and 2010 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Colorado State University.

A new report from Colorado State University confirms that air quality in our most-visited national park is measurably better, thanks to the Clean Air Act. While more work still needs to be done to improve air quality around the country, the new emissions and visibility measurements published last week by the university’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA) confirm that the skies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding areas are significantly cleaner than they were two decades ago.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the East Coast suffered from particularly bad air pollution and acid rain, which damaged forests and aquatic life and contributed to haze and smog. Researchers identified the emissions from burning fossil fuels as the main cause of this pollution, especially particulates from coal-fired power plants. Not only does this unsightly pollution continue to reduce visibility at national parks, it also poses serious health problems to communities around the country, including asthma, bronchitis, and other serious respiratory ailments.

Since Congress passed the Clean Air Act and subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990 that specifically address national park protection and acid rain, the skies are literally brighter. According to CIRA, between 1990 and 2010, sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States dropped from 23 million tons to 8 million tons and nitrogen oxide emissions were cut in than half, based on EPA emissions data.

These are significant public health and environmental benefits, though we still have a long way to go to meet the air quality goals set by Congress as part of the Clean Air Act in 1977. The acid rain regulations that contributed to these dramatic improvements primarily benefitted the eastern part of the country. There are still many antiquated, highly polluting coal plants in the West that obscure visibility in iconic national parks like Zion, Mesa Verde, and the Grand Canyon. According to a 2011 report by NPCA (PDF), the impact of power plant emissions on visibility in parks and wilderness areas costs the economy an estimated $5.62 billion a year—not including costs to public health.

Though our work is still cut out for us, this new data from CIRA confirms that the Clean Air Act is remarkably effective when officials comply with the landmark law. For decades, lawmakers have repeatedly tried to weaken these regulations, and NPCA and others have filed multiple lawsuits to assure compliance with various Clean Air Act mandates. Now we see what it looks like when we enforce these important protections—clearly, and for miles.

Above: The difference in pollution levels between 1990 and 2010 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo  courtesy of Colorado State University.

About the Author

Senior Vice President of Conservation Programs Mark Wenzler

Mark Wenzler is senior vice president of conservation programs at NPCA.