Critics fear the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will adopt a rule in the waning days of the Bush administration that will make it easier to build coal-fired power plants near national parks.
The proposed change, pending since last June, comes as the utility industry moves into its biggest building boom in coal-fueled power plants in decades. To meet growing electricity needs, more than 20 plants are under construction in 14 states and more than 100 are in various stages of planning.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, vowed in an interview to push Congress to overrule the EPA if it enacts the rule, perhaps as early as this summer.
The new rule would change the way states, the EPA and others calculate the impact of a new pollution source, like a coal plant, on a park's maximum pollution load, said John Bunyak of the National Park Service's Air Resources Division in Denver. Instead of weighing peak periods of pollution, the new rule would use annual averages.
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Don Barger, southern regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, compared it to a person sticking one hand in a block of ice and the other in a fire.
“Your average temperature is just fine, but your hands are not,” he said. “You are getting some real impact there.”
As an example, he said air quality in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country's most-visited national park with more than 9million visitors a year, recently reached an “orange alert” pollution warning. The park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
When that happens, “the park is getting hammered. People in the park are getting hammered. Plants in the park are getting hammered,” Barger said. “It doesn't matter where it averages out some other time. You have a family from Ohio on vacation. It is the only time they are going to be there. What views can they see? What air are they breathing?”
EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the rule is part of an EPA program to prevent air quality degradation in national parks and would not change the level of emissions allowed in clean-air areas.
But in a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, Alexander writes that the National Park Service and the EPA's own regional air quality experts have determined the proposal would result in undercounting of actual pollution sources.
Alexander wrote that the National Park Service says the rule “provides the lowest possible degree of protection” for 156 so-called Class 1 areas that include the country's most revered national parks and preserves.
More than 1,300 people have sent letters to the EPA over the proposal. Many are form letters that begin, “I am outraged to learn about EPA's proposed rule change that would undermine laws that protect air quality in Class 1 national parks, which are supposed to have the cleanest air in the country.”