WASHINGTON—Back in the winter of 1991, President George H.W. Bush traveled to Arizona to tell operators of a utility to clean up their coal-fired act so visitors could actually distinguish the state's most famous and priceless landmark — the Grand Canyon.
Fast-forward 20 years. Views of the iconic chasm might be a bit less hazy but visibility at 150-plus of the nation's other natural wonders is still limited because of power-plant pollution.
That scenario, however, is expected to begin clearing up soon. It's happening because a handful of conservation organizations have spent decades doggedly prodding, tugging and cajoling the Environmental Protection Agency into meeting its Clean Air Act mandate to collaborate with states to reduce the regional haze that clouds views in 156 national parks and wilderness areas.
A mid-June milestone agreement filed in the U.S. District Court in Colorado requires EPA to oversee plans to curb thousands of tons of air pollution in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming beginning next year. Once the 30-day comment period ends July 15, a federal judge in Colorado is tasked with issuing final approval.
All told, the settlement puts at least 18 aging coal-fired plants — with more than 16,000 megawatts of generating power — on a path to being cleaned up or retired altogether.
The latest agreement came to fruition after the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Parks Conservation Association and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit earlier this year after EPA's failure to act.
"It's sort of like if you've been driving a car with a windshield that hasn't been washed in months. You become accustomed to it," John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, told SolveClimate News about what a difference the pact will make to clarity at national parks.
"When you get the windshield cleaned, it opens up a whole new world of views and possibilities."
Haze, Why Worry?
The 18 plants targeted under the agreement collectively release at least 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 150,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 120 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to information compiled by WildEarth Guardians.
Haze happens when sunlight reacts with minuscule pieces of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. When these tiny particles scatter and absorb that light, it creates a vista-blurring veil of white or brown haze that hangs in the air much of the year. The more air pollutants there are, the more absorbing and scattering occurs. Wind can carry the pollutants hundred of miles from where they originated.
"It obscures the grandness of the West," Environmental Defense Fund general counsel Vickie Patton said in an interview, referring to incomparable spots such as Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks. "National parks and wilderness areas are integral to our quality of life."
Under the recent agreement, EPA will be charged with approving state regional haze plans crafted by Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming. However, in Montana's case, EPA officials will be creating a federal regional haze plan because the Big Sky State has told the agency it doesn't have the resources to put together its own plan. Final approval on all four plans is set for varying dates in 2012.
The Bigger Picture
Due to that separate lawsuit and ensuing agreement, Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana are just the first four drops in the proverbial bucket of a nationwide effort to rein in haze-causing pollutants at power plants as well as other large industrial emitters such as pulp mills, refineries and smelters.
Though the idea of controlling haze started germinating in the Carter administration, EPA first rolled out its haze rules in 1999.
But states have been amazingly slow at designing haze-reduction plans that would require power plants and other large emitters to outfit their oldest and dirtiest plants with up-to-date air pollution controls known as "best available retrofit technology." In January 2009, EPA discovered that states were falling short. That triggered a two-year clock requiring EPA to forge ahead with federal regional haze plans if states failed to have a proposal approved by the agency, Patton said.
"It went a lot slower than we would have liked it to go ideally," Carl Daly, director of air programs for EPA Region 8, said in an interview. "It wasn't like states were sitting on their hands. Some states had plans but EPA thought they needed work."
Daly, whose Denver-based region covers six mountain and high plains states, explained that all kinds of complications gummed up the process.
For instance, 31 states and the District of Columbia were counting on what was known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) to cover their haze rules. But that blew up in 2008 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered EPA to revisit the rule crafted under the President George W. Bush administration because it didn’t meet Clean Air Act requirements.
Under the Obama administration's tenure, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has morphed CAIR into what is now called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. EPA released requirements for that newest standard last Thursday.