About a year ago, the EPA proposed rewriting a section of the Clean Air Act that spells out how the government measures air pollution near Class 1 areas, federal lands that currently receive the highest level of protection under the law. The agency closed the public comment period on the proposed rule change in April, and says it probably wont make significant changes to the draft rule, despite the objections of many EPA scientists and park officials.
What Would the Proposed Air Quality Rule Change Do?
Basically, the new rule would average emissions from coal-fired power plants over an entire year to determine whether the facility is meeting federal air-quality standards. By averaging emissions, regulators would ignore spikes in emissions that regularly occur during periods of peak energy demand, which would reverse the 30-year EPA practice of measuring pollution levels in more precise increments to account for and regulate the spikes.
Don Shepherd, an environmental engineer at the Park Service's air resources division in Denver, said of the new rule, "I don't know of anyone at our level, who deals with this day to day, that likes it or thinks it's going to make sense, said Don Shepherd, an environmental engineer and air resources expert for the National Park Service.
"We really want to have clean air at national parks all the time, and not just at average times," Shepherd said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. "All of our national parks have impaired visibility. . . . It would really be a setback in trying to make progress."
Why EPA Scientists and Park Officials Oppose Changing the Rules
Opponents to change are worried that weakening the rules that govern air quality in national parks and wilderness areas will increase air pollution and decrease visibility in many places that are already threatened. According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an advocacy group, one in three national park sites has air pollution levels that exceed health standards set by the EPA, and yet the agency seems determined to implement a rule that will make that situation worse.
"It's like if you're pulled over by a cop for going 75 miles per hour in a 55 miles-per-hour zone, and you say, 'If you look at how I've driven all year, I've averaged 55 miles per hour,' " said Mark Wenzler, director of clean-air programs for the NPCA, in an interview with The Washington Post. "It allows you to vastly underestimate the impact of these emissions."
Jim Renfro, an air resources specialist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told The Post that the park no longer meets federal smog standards, which is a public health issue, and visibility on summer days is 15 miles, down from the previous 80 miles.
"There are some days when it's unhealthy to breathe at the park, so that's a major concern. People come here to get away, and they can't believe that sometimes they're better off where they came from," Renfro said. "We've got a long way to go."
Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images
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