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EPA plan would ease rules for National Parks

The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants and oil refineries near national parks.
Image: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park try to look through the haze as they stand at Look Rock near Townsend, Tenn., in 2006.Chuck Burton / AP File
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other major polluters near national parks and wilderness areas, even though half of the EPA's 10 regional administrators formally dissented from the decision and four others criticized the move in writing.

Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the administration's push to weaken Clean Air Act protections for "Class 1 areas" nationwide has sparked fierce resistance from senior agency officials. All but two of the regional administrators objecting to the proposed rule are political appointees.

The proposal would change the practice of measuring pollution levels near national parks, which is currently done over three-hour and 24-hour increments to capture emission spikes during periods of peak energy demand; instead, the levels would be averaged over a year. Under this system, spikes in pollution would no longer violate the law.

In written submissions, EPA regional administrators have argued that this switch would undermine critical air-quality protections for parks such as Virginia's Shenandoah, which is frequently plagued by smog and poor visibility.

EPA Region 4 Administrator J. I. Palmer Jr., whose office oversees the Southeast, wrote that the new formula "would reduce consistency, accuracy and public review" and "could allow greater deterioration of air quality in clean areas rather than preventing significant deterioration."

Bharat Mathur, who until recently oversaw air quality for the Great Lakes states as acting administrator for Region 5, wrote, "The proposed approach is inappropriate and could lead to gaming the increment calculation." And Region 8 acting Administrator Carol Rushin, whose office covers Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and North and South Dakota, wrote that the rule provides "inappropriate discretion" when calculating pollution levels.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said in an e-mail that he could not comment in detail on the air-quality rule but said that the submissions "are all part of the regular agency process, so all I can say is that that process has been moving forward."

The EPA could issue the final rule as early as this week. Shradar wrote that "work continues on a number of rules including the [Class 1 areas] rule, but no timeline has been set for completion at this point."

Many national parks struggle with poor visibility shrouding otherwise spectacular vistas, as well as acid rain and other problems caused by air pollution, a situation that has intensified the debate over how best to regulate lead smelters, coal-fired power plants and other nearby pollution sources.

Don Shepherd, an environmental engineer at the National Park Service's air resources division in Denver, noted that the agency determined in the 1980s that every one of its parks was "visually impaired," and "nothing really has changed that." Visitors to Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive in the mid-1930s reported seeing the Washington Monument more than 70 miles away; now, on some days, visibility is barely one mile.

"The approach that's being proposed is going to underestimate the emissions, both for power plants that are out there now and for the ones that are proposed," Shepherd said. "It's going in the wrong direction for our efforts to try to improve air quality in the parks."

While limiting pollution in national parks does not have the broad public health implications of federal air-quality rules that govern soot or airborne lead pollution, it has symbolic and ecological importance. The four major pollutants affecting the parks -- sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and mercury -- contribute to degrading once-pristine habitats that Congress sought to preserve for generations when it decided to protect those areas.

Jeffrey R. Holmstead -- who helped initiate the rule change while chief of EPA's air and radiation office and who now heads the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani -- said it is unsurprising that regional officials would have a position different from that at headquarters.

"The headquarters perspective tends to be much broader," Holmstead said, adding that the Bush administration has pursued air pollution reductions but has seen its proposals tied up in court. "Air quality in national parks, in particular, has very little to do with an individual source. What you really want to do is lower air pollution in that region."

Regional EPA officials, he added, want "every weapon in their arsenal" to reduce pollution from a given source: "Regions are focused on a permit for a specific plant. Often what they focus on is anything that gives them leverage."

But Mark Wenzler, who directs clean-air programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said regional administrators "weren't just looking at parochial concerns" but instead conducting a broad analysis of the rule's impact.

"The administration's staunch commitment to coal is so deep that they're willing to sacrifice our national parks on the way out the door," he said.

If the EPA adopts the rule change, Wenzler added, his group plans to file a petition for reconsideration with the agency, which would allow the incoming Obama administration to reverse the policy. If the new rule is enacted, the association estimates it would ease the way for the construction of at least two dozen coal-fired utilities within 186 miles of 10 national parks.