Will 2012 Be a Landmark Year for Cleaner Air in National Parks?

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Thirty-five years ago, Congress promised that our most treasured national parks and wilderness areas would have the cleanest air in the country. Yet today, millions of national park visitors continue to breathe potentially dangerous air and hike to overlooks only to find their views obscured by pollution. Haze not only muddies the horizon, it burns our lungs and damages plants and wildlife, too. Fortunately, 2012 could be a landmark year for cleaning up skies in national parks.

Mark Wenzler, vice president of NPCA’s Climate and Air Quality Programs, has worked for the last decade to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement and enforce clean air protections for national parks. Below, he answers a few questions on NPCA’s air quality work. 

What is haze, exactly, and what causes it?

Most of the air pollution affecting national parks is the result of burning fossil fuels—especially in outdated coal-burning power plants. A single coal plant produces literally tons of small airborne particles each year that will block sunlight, often reducing park views to only a few miles instead of the inspiring 100-mile views that bring many visitors to the parks.

What is the “regional haze program”?

Congress directed the EPA to clean up the major industrial pollution sources causing haze in the parks. EPA responded with the regional haze program. This program requires state-of-the-art pollution controls from industrial sources, including coal-fired power plants. Unfortunately, EPA repeatedly missed deadlines to clean up industries polluting the parks, so NPCA sued. Our lawsuit resulted in a historic court order requiring that EPA finalize haze cleanup plans for every state before the end of 2012. That is an enormous victory that caps decades of work.

Decades of work?

Yes. The haze program is a good story about how persistence pays off. When Congress enacted the Clean Air Act in 1977, there was very little control over industrial air pollution. Cities were full of smog and many national parks were just as hazy. Congress decreed that national parks and other protected areas should have the cleanest air. But little was done to realize this goal until NPCA and our supporters pressured successive Administrations, from Clinton to Obama, and filed lawsuits when all else failed. Now, 35 years later, we’re finally starting to get the job done.

But NPCA is still asking supporters around the country to take action and weigh in on many of these haze cleanup plans. What’s the problem?

Well, the job is never done. Now the plans are being written, but there are no guarantees that they will be any good. Some states are even exempting the biggest park polluters from state-of-the-art pollution controls. We are monitoring them state by state to make sure that they are requiring the best cleanup measures to protect the national parks. When they’re not, our members and supporters can make a big difference by telling regulators they want better plans that actually protect our national parks.

Are there places where you feel NPCA and its supporters are having a real impact?

Absolutely. In Oregon and Washington state, regulators are now planning to shut down their old, outdated coal plants that were massively polluting national parks and wilderness areas. Over a period of years, coal will be phased out and these states will transition to cleaner power–an enormous benefit for both public health and the parks.

Some of the country’s highest-polluting coal plants are in the Southwest and they are seriously affecting the Grand Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands. EPA has proposed strong haze cleanup plans for some of those plants that will lead to cleaner technologies and clearer air in the parks.

There are other examples where we’re still fighting, and we think EPA has not done the right thing.

Like where?

One example is North Dakota, where EPA initially proposed a really good cleanup plan to protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Voyageurs National Park [in nearby Minnesota], but they backed down at the last minute. Earlier this month, we filed a lawsuit against EPA to get them to write a stronger haze cleanup plan in North Dakota.

Another example is that EPA is completely exempting eastern U.S. states from the regional haze rule, based on a flawed finding that existing air pollution rules are good enough to protect the parks. But NPCA’s analysis shows that EPA’s approach will allow outdated coal plants to continue polluting parks like Great Smoky Mountains, Voyageurs, Shenandoah, Wind Cave, and Brigantine Wilderness Area. We are considering suing EPA to overturn this flawed policy.

Is hazy air unhealthy?

Yes. The same chemicals that form haze also are deeply harmful to human health. That’s why some parks post health warnings on high pollution days in the summer, advising people to avoid many of the activities visitors come to the parks for–hiking, biking, paddling.

Hazy skies and health warnings tend to keep people away from the parks, harming local businesses that depend on park visitors. That’s why many businesses around the country have partnered with NPCA to fight for cleaner air in the parks. It’s encouraging to me to see people from different walks of life, and different political views, come together to protect our national parks.

How did you get involved in this work?

I grew up in northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City, in a highly polluted area. I remember driving through industrial areas of New Jersey as a kid on the way to my grandmother’s house and having to hold my breath because it was just so horrible. The smell of the pollution was overwhelming. Later in life I became an avid outdoors person—backpacking, hiking, biking, skiing, and paddling through many national parks and wilderness areas. I’ve seen examples where I’ve been on top of a mountain and couldn’t see the next peak because it was so hazy.

When I got to NPCA, I was just so happy to have an opportunity to help protect these places I love—to be able to work with NPCA’s staff, members, and supporters to bring cleaner air to our parks.

You can learn more about NPCA’s clean air and climate work and read a recent story on haze pollution in National Parks magazine.

About the Author

Editor of Online Communications Jennifer Errick

Jennifer Errick is editor of online communications at NPCA.