Zion National Park was 300 miles and a smoggy day away from the raucous air quality rally held in Salt Lake City last month. But while the thousands of mask-wearing Utahns who hiked to the open-air tent revival on the Capitol steps are in a long-term campaign focused on reducing the pollution generated by Wasatch Front drivers and businesses, there is another more immediate opportunity to improve Utah’s air quality right in front of us. And it hinges on preserving clean air at places like Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has until May to fix problems with the state’s attempt to comply with the Clean Air Act’s Regional Haze Rule, which protects air quality in the region’s prized national parks and wilderness areas.
That means we have a little less than four months to hold state regulators accountable for this critical air cleanup plan. For the sake of our own health, we all should become national park advocates.
Congress approved the visibility protection mandate of the Clean Air Act 37 years ago with the understanding that air you can see is air you don’t want to breathe — a familiar concept along the Wasatch Front. Under this legislation and associated regulations, each state is required to adopt a plan to reduce haze-causing pollution in 156 protected national parks and wilderness areas across the country. A big part of cleaning up park air requires making antiquated coal-fired power plants meet modern standards.
Utah is one of the last five states in the country – along with Texas – to fully implement such a plan. In fact, the Regional Haze Rule is being enforced now to protect the air in and around national parks and their surrounding communities, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon. Why should Utah be any different?
Two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found Utah’s draft regional haze plan insufficient. And now, if the state doesn’t improve its cleanup proposal, EPA could issue a federal plan in its place.
With five protected national parks and urban air quality that rivals the smoggiest southern California towns’ on some days, Utah’s weak haze cleanup plan is bewildering. Beloved by generations of Americans, Utahns included, the parks were singled out for special protections in the Clean Air Act for a reason. Air pollution not only muddies scenic views and harms plants and animals, it also deters visitors — the tourists upon whom the economies of Moab and Torrey and Springdale depend.
The recent federal government shutdown made the economic impact of Utah’s national parks starkly clear. During the first 10 days of the shutdown, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees estimated Zion National Park lost 72,876 visitors at a cost of $3.5 million in revenue to southern Utah communities. Together, the state’s five national parks generated more than $422 million in 2010.
At the time, Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah lawmakers scrambled to reopen the parks under state management – an acknowledgement that the state’s economy depends on visitors to these special places. They should feel an equal urgency to protect the same parks’ cornflower blue skies and star-spritzed nights.
Among the main air pollution offenders are two central Utah coal-fired power plants — PacifiCorp’s Hunter and Huntington units near Price. They operate now without specific plans to transition to cleaner energy or state-of-the-art controls that reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx). NOx is a key contributor to Utah’s poor air quality.
More than 250 coal plants nationwide operate with technologies that reduce up to 95 percent of this pollution while scores more have plans in place to transition to cleaner sources of energy. Utah’s draft implementation plan could hold PacifiCorp, otherwise known to Salt Lake City customers as Rocky Mountain Power, to the same standards. This can only happen if the public and our elected officials demand stricter pollution controls.
At last month’s rally, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment President Brian Moench acknowledged we have the government, and the air quality rules, we choose.
"This is your state. What goes on in the building behind us is your government," he said. "The air that you breathe is largely what you make of it, either by ignoring it, by making it worse through neglect, or fighting to make it better."
This is one way Utahns can make the air we breathe better: Write to Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith and Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird. Tell them to require two of Utah’s biggest polluters, the Hunter and Huntington power plants, to reduce noxious emissions by 95 percent.
The campaign does not end there. In a few months, federal regulators from EPA Region 8 in Denver will have to decide to accept or reject whatever Utah submits as its air cleanup plan. When the time comes, we need to make sure EPA protects Utahns and our parks, even if our state does not.
Rebecca Walsh, a former Tribune reporter and columnist, is western clean air manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
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