As summer sets in, visitors are once again flocking to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 500,000-acre attraction, which straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border, boasts half the remaining old-growth forest in the East, more than 2,000 miles of streams, 850 miles of trails and a wealth of biodiversity. But America’s most-visited national park is also the fourth most-vulnerable to the threat of new coal-fired power plants, according to a new report issued by the National Parks Conservation Association, a national nonprofit. Meanwhile, a rule change proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in June would weaken existing pollution rules for the Smokies and other national parks, air-quality experts say, making it easier for utilities to build coal-fired plants near park boundaries.
The proposed change, which could be implemented as early as this summer, has drawn criticism from air-quality analysts in regional EPA offices as well as a bipartisan group of senators—including Sen. Elizabeth Dole R-N.C., who signed on to a June 23 letter opposing the rule change.
“Congress made a firm commitment to protect air quality in America’s national parks and wilderness areas so that visitors can enjoy clear skies and healthy air,” states the letter, which was drafted by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, and co-signed by seven others. “If EPA puts Class I air quality at risk by adopting this flawed rulemaking, we will pursue legislative options to restore the full level of protection provided by the Clean Air Act.”
Essentially, the new rule would change the way pollution is measured when calculating the impacts on national parks, according to Bart Melton, a program analyst for the conservation association who’s based in Knoxville. Rather than taking into account the peaks in ozone and other pollutant levels that tend to spike over the summer, regulatory agencies would look at the average level of emissions over the course of a year. “During the summer months, coal-fired power plants are really cranking, because people are using their air conditioners etc.,” Melton explains. But the rule change, he says, would turn a blind eye to “those spikes that you see in pollution over the summer, which are what lead to bad visibility locally and dangerous ozone pollution. Rather than looking at seasonal spikes, it’ll just be averaged out.”
The new rule would also discount emissions from power plants that aren’t subject to the strictest pollution controls because they have variances, says Melton. Currently, the pollution from these plants is tallied along with the rest of an area’s emissions sources when determining the cumulative air-quality impact on a national park. However, “the new rule would allow them to not be measured,” Melton reports. “Some facilities will essentially just disappear from the measurement—even though they are going to continue to pollute.” This change, he argues, would make it easier for a utility to construct a plant adjacent to a national park. “When Duke Energy or Dominion Power in Virginia want to build a new facility, they suddenly have more flexibility,” he explains, “because these polluters have just disappeared off the map overnight in the eyes of the EPA.”
The bipartisan letter opposing the new rule cites the EPA’s own regional air-quality experts, who’ve characterized the agency’s proposal as “grossly inadequate” and “based on false assumptions,” complaining that it would “jeopardize protection” of Class I air quality in national parks.
But Cathy Milbourn, the senior press officer in the EPA’s Washington, D.C., defended the change. “The proposed rule would not change the level of emissions allowed in clean-air areas,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The Clean Air Act specifies the degree air quality in these areas is allowed to worsen. If a new facility’s emissions would push air quality past limits allowed, then the permit cannot be issued. In the case of national parks, a permit also cannot be issued if the National Park Service demonstrates that a new facility’s emissions would damage air-quality-related values (such as visibility) of the park—even if the emissions would not degrade the air.”
Tangible effects of ozone and other key air pollutants are already being observed in parks nationwide, according to John Bunyak of the National Park Service’s Air Resources Division in Denver. “Visibility is impaired in all of our parks,” he says. “We have some parks with very high ozone levels, and we have an issue with ozone health-advisory alerts with visitors and employees. Some of our streams are also becoming acidified,” he adds.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park faces a special challenge, Melton maintains. “The Smokies is one of the most polluted national parks in the country, just given its [proximity] to a number of serious sources of pollutants—and a lot of those sources are coal-fired power plants,” he explains. “One immediate result [of the rule change] could be that there are more proposed coal-fired power plants and industrial sources close to the Class I Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The result of that would be … more damage to plants, more damage to ecosystems, more dry acid deposition, wet deposition such as acid rain, and more mercury going into the park.” Mercury levels, he added, are already significant there.
Although some news reports have said the EPA could decide to implement the rule change as early as this summer, the agency has not announced when it will issue its final decision.
For more information, visit www.epa.gov/nsr.