May 16, 2008 in Nation/World

EPA easing air rules near national parks

Juliet Eilperin Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is on the verge of implementing new air quality rules that will make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas, according to rank-and-file agency scientists and park managers who oppose the plan.

The new regulations, which are likely to be finalized this summer, rewrite a provision of the Clean Air Act that applies to “Class 1 areas,” federal lands that currently have the highest level of protection under the law. Opponents predict the changes will worsen visibility at many of the most prized tourist destinations in the U.S., including Virginia’s Shenandoah, Colorado’s Mesa Verde and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt national parks.

Nearly a year ago, with little fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changing the way the government measures air pollution near Class 1 areas on the grounds that the nation needed a more uniform way of regulating emissions near protected areas. The agency closed the comment period in April and has indicated it is not making significant changes to the draft rule, despite objections by EPA staff members.

The initiative is the latest in a series of administration efforts going back to 2003 to weaken air quality protections at national parks, including failed moves to prohibit federal land managers from commenting on permits for new pollution sources more than 31 miles away from their areas and to only protect air resources for parks that are big and diverse enough to “represent complete ecosystems.”

For 30 years, regulators have measured pollution levels in the parks, over both three-hour and 24-hour increments, to capture the spikes in emissions that occur during periods of peak energy demand. The new rule would average the levels over a year so that spikes in pollution levels would not violate the law.

A slew of National Park Service and EPA officials have challenged the rule change, arguing that it will worsen visibility in already-impaired areas, according to internal documents obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Thursday, the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, issued a report estimating that the rule would ease the way for the construction of 28 new power plants within 186 miles of 10 national parks.

“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 fifty-five miles per hour,’ ” said Mark Wenzler, director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s clean air programs. “It allows you to vastly underestimate the impact of these emissions.”

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