Commentary: Protect our national parks from air pollution

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this Aug. 23, 2016 photo, clean air, public health and national park advocates march to Rocky Mountain Power headquarters in Salt Lake City, in support of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recently approved plan to reduce coal pollution in beloved national parks such as Arches, Canyonlands and Zion. A 20-year plan by Utah's largest electricity provider stipulating that it will not add pollution-control systems to its coal power plants has received criticism from some in the state who say the proposal may violate a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement and get in the way of the federal push to curb regional haze, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

The National Parks Conservation Association recently released a new “Polluted Parks” report detailing the distressing effects of air and climate pollution on national parks. The findings are clear: nearly all of America’s national parks are suffering significantly from human-caused air pollution.

While Utah’s parks stand out in our National Park System for their extraordinary scenic beauty, sadly they are like so many other parks across the country struggling from hazy skies, unhealthy air, harm to nature and effects of climate change.

Every hour Utah’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants, Hunter and Huntington, dump thousands of pounds of smog-producing nitrogen oxide pollution into the air, on the doorstep of some of our most precious landscapes – Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef and Zion National Parks. That pollution then spreads even further, to Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks, creating haze that muddies stunning views and dark night skies, harms our lungs, stresses sensitive species and habitats and drives climate change.

Notably, both Rocky Mountain Power — owner of the two coal plants — and the state of Utah have acknowledged the harm these facilities are having on national parks across Utah and into surrounding states.

In 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency approved a plan that would have resulted in cutting nearly 10,000 tons per year of harmful emissions from Hunter and Huntington, utilizing standard industry technology already in place at more than 270 plants nationwide. But under the Trump Administration, Utah’s air regulators are being given the chance to throw out EPA’s plan and replace it with their own.

However, the plan they are proposing, which has been rejected by the EPA three times before, allows these coal plants to continue spewing completely preventable pollution with no new requirements to cut emissions.

Utah’s national parks protect some of our country’s most treasured natural, cultural and historic resources. From thousands of arches and spiraling rock towers in Arches National Park to Zion National Park’s dramatic red hued cliffs and unique plants and wildlife, together, our parks offer visitors from around the world unrivaled once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It is unacceptable that Utah is again failing to protect our parks, local economies and visitors, especially at a time when the state so desperately needs bold leadership to combat air pollution problems.

Poor air quality in our national parks also threatens local economies. National parks provide nearly $36 billion in economic output and support thousands of jobs across the country each year. Yet, when the air at a national park isn’t clean, visitation drops by at least eight percent, harming local economies and indicating that air quality directly affects public use and enjoyment of our parks.

In 2017, Utah’s national parks alone drew over 15 million visitors, generating nearly $1.6 billion for the state’s economy. Without strong safeguards protecting the air we breathe, we cannot keep these places and local economies strong, let alone keep people healthy.

The state has another chance to do the right thing and hold Rocky Mountain Power accountable for the pollution coming from the Hunter and Huntington coal plants, requiring that their pollution be reduced for the sake of public health and so that visitors have the opportunity to experience the extraordinary beauty that our iconic national parks have to offer now and for future generations.

There’s still time for Utahns, who love our parks as much as I do, to call on the state’s air officials to protect our extraordinary national parks and communities. Visit npca.org/reduceutahhaze to speak up for clean, clear air before Wednesday’s deadline.

Ernie Atencio is the southwest regional director for National Parks Conservation Association.

Ernie Atencio is the southwest regional director for National Parks Conservation Association. He is a former park ranger, has worked and traveled throughout Utah and currently lives in his ancestral homeland of northern New Mexico.