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Emissions Hide Mount Rainier,Lawsuit Claims Centralia Power Plant, Pulp And Paper Mills Get Blame For Sulfur Dioxide, Dust And Ash

The sun is shining. There’s not a cloud in the sky.

So why can’t you see Mount Rainier?

A third of the time that happens, studies indicate pollution from a coal-fired electrical generating plant in Centralia is the culprit, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

The suit filed by Northwest Environmental Advocates of Portland, asks that emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates, chiefly dust and ash, from the generating plant, pulp and paper mills and other major sources be reduced to improve visibility and cut acid rain in Mount Rainier National Park.

The technology to achieve that result would be expensive, said Craig Johnston, a lawyer for the group.

Along with the case, assigned to Judge William L. Dwyer, the group filed a partial consent decree in which the heads of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Ecology Department and Southwest Air Pollution Control Agency agreed to study the effects of industrial emissions on visibility at Mount Rainier, two other national parks and five wilderness areas in the state. The decree awaits the judge’s signature.

Those parks and wilderness areas have been designated Class I visibility areas under the federal Clean Air Act.

State and environmental lawyers agreed that the settlement covers less than half the dispute. Negotiations to resolve the rest are continuing, they added.

The visibility study is the start of a three-step process required by the Clean Air Act. Next, the state must identify the sources of visual impairment for each case certified by federal agencies in Class I areas. Finally, the state must impose technological controls for each source.

The third step has never been taken anywhere in the country, said Nina Bell, executive director of the environmental group.

Ecology is nine years overdue on the visibility study, said Renee Guillierie, an agency spokeswoman. Ecology officials decided to work first on “some of the major air pollution problems that affect public health,” chiefly in the Seattle-Tacoma, Spokane and Vancouver areas, Guillierie said.

With progress in those areas, the agency is better prepared to begin attacking visibility problems, she said.

Ron Levine, an assistant state attorney general, added that Ecology and the southwest Washington air pollution control agency feared legal action from utilities as well as from environmental interests.

“I think it’s a classic case of the operators wanting to move more slowly, the citizens wanting to move more quickly and Ecology and SWAPCA that are caught in the middle,” Levine said.

The 1,340-megawatt Centralia plant is the largest single source of sulfur dioxide west of the Mississippi River, the utility and environmentalists agree. Sulfur dioxide is the source of acid rain.

Research indicates the plant is responsible for about a third of the 132 days of visibility impairment blamed on human sources at Mount Rainier annually, according to reports issued by the National Park Service and the regional agency.