Image: Big Bend on clear, hazy days
National Park Service via AP
The National Park Service put together this comparison of two days with distinct air quality.
updated 3/16/2009 4:29:04 PM ET 2009-03-16T20:29:04

Growing up in a speck of a desert town in the heart of Texas' Big Bend region, Delia White once had picturesque views of rugged mountains in every direction. On a clear day, she could see jagged peaks a 100 miles away.

But now, on most summer days, the 53-year-old convenience store owner in Terlingua can barely make out some of the highest peaks of the nearby Big Bend National Park.

"I remember clear views in every direction," White said on a recent hazy day.

The thick brown haze that hovers over the massive national park on warm days has been a problem for at least two decades, according to those who live in the area. And federal and state environmental officials agree that the cloud of pollution caused by factories and power plants hundreds or thousands of miles away in the U.S. and Mexico is a problem that needs to be cleaned up.

But officials differ, by about 91 years, on how long it should take.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked states to clean up areas they've dubbed "Regional Class I Areas," a group of sites that include national parks and other federal lands, by 2064.

But officials at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality have decided it will likely take until 2155 to clear the air over the park.

Commission officials say the haze problem is complicated because the pollution is funneled to Big Bend by winds from east Texas, the Ohio River Valley and northeastern Mexico.

Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman, said many states have missed the deadline to turn in regional haze plans. But of those that did, Texas is the only state to miss the 2064 target.

No power plant curbs in Texas
The lengthy plan, which includes reducing haze in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park by 2081, does not call for any pollution reductions for Texas facilities. It was unanimously approved by the three-member commission board last month.

Margaret Earnest, a commission planner, said specific reductions weren't necessary because other air quality plans already in place will eventually help cut haze at Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains.

But not everyone agrees.

Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, called the commission's plan a "virtually absurdist approach."

"There are a number of things that could be done to clamp down on power plants in the state," Kramer said. "Many of those plants were built decades ago and although their pollution controls may have been improved slightly over time, they are still not using the best available technology."

Retrofitting pollution-emitting plants in Texas would cost about $300 million, a price tag that Earnest said commission officials didn't deem necessary right now.

"We've made reductions in other plans that affect haze in Houston and Dallas," Earnest said. "Because we have spent so much time and money on rules and controls in those areas, there was a decision not to add additional controls."

The commissioners who approved the plan agree the state could have done better.

"We look ridiculous saying it will take us 146 years to achieve this," Commissioner Larry Soward told the Houston Chronicle last month.

Soward, through a secretary in his office, declined to speak to The Associated Press about the plan. Neither of his colleagues, Commissioner Bryan Shaw and Chairman Buddy Garcia, returned telephone messages seeking comment.

Commissioner: 'Charade' of sorts
Shaw told the Houston newspaper that the plan was "somewhat of a charade. But it has a chance of reducing undo burden on the state."

Raymond Skiles, the acting chief of science and resource management at Big Bend, said the environmental effects of the haze on the park is unclear — park service scientists are only now starting environmental reviews. But it's clear from complaints by visitors and local outdoor outfitters that the lack of visibility on the hottest, steamiest days of the year is affecting tourism at the park, which attracts 300,000 to 400,000 visitors annually.

Jan Forte, who runs Big Bend River Tours in Terlingua, said the haze has become a health concern for many residents.

Forte, 66, and others say they've noticed more people, including themselves, complaining of allergies that seemingly didn't exist 20 years ago.

And with fewer than 300 people living in the towns closest to the park, Forte worries they don't have the political clout to make officials in Austin take notice.

"Your voice is not very well heard out here," said Forte. "There's not a lot of votes out here to make any politician shake in their boots that we we're going to vote them out of office."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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