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EPA to relax air rules near national parks

Agency’s regional heads criticize move

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air quality rules that will make it easier to build coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other major polluters near national parks and wilderness areas, despite the fact that half of EPA’s 10 regional administrators have formally dissented from the decision and another four criticized the move in writing.

Documents obtained by the Washington Post show that the Bush administration’s push to weaken Clean Air Act protections for “Class 1 areas” nationwide has sparked fierce resistance from senior agency officials.

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

In a series of written submissions, EPA regional administrators have argued 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 Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, 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 oversees 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.”

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

EPA could issue the final rule as early as this week.

Many national parks struggle with poor visibility shrouding otherwise spectacular vistas as well as acid rain deposition and other problems caused by air pollution, which 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.”


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