I grew up sleeping under clear starry skies ringed by silhouettes of sandstone spires in Castle Valley, Utah. Leo, Cygnus and Orion were friendly heralds of the passing seasons. From the mountains nearby, I could see for hundreds of miles, to the San Rafael Swell, Bears Ears and the distant Henry Mountains.
But lately, the number of days when I can see this far, through the haze, are dwindling. Wildfire smoke and relic coal plants are to blame. We might not be able to control California’s wildfire season, but we can do something about our regional polluters.
Grand County and Moab are known throughout the world for red rock vistas and clear skies. What is less known is that those clear skies and grand vistas are hardly a given, with major pollution sources stationed just 70 miles from the heart of canyon country. In fact, two of Utah’s largest polluters, Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants, are located just one county west of Canyonlands and Arches national parks. Utah’s five national parks experience impaired visibility due to anthropogenic haze from these power plants 83 percent of the time according to a report from the National Park Service.
However, there is a program within the Clean Air Act that specifically aims to clean up these emissions and return the viewsheds of America’s wild places, like our national parks, to their natural condition. Known as the Regional Haze Rule, this program was put into place in 1999 with the expressed outcome of returning natural viewsheds in America’s wild places to natural visibility conditions by 2064.
The power stations in question, located in Emery County, are significant emitters of sulfur (S02), nitrogen oxides (NOX) and particulate matter (PM). The 1,361-MW Hunter Plant emits close to 15,000 tons of these emissions annually, while the Huntington Plant emits more than 9,000 tons annually. These pollutants, in addition to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are known as regional haze, and they impair visibility and impact human health all over Grand County. In addition to blurring the natural beauty of our vast canyon country, these pollutants are linked to serious health effects, including increased respiratory illness, decreased lung function and premature death.
Despite the good intentions of the Regional Haze Program, for Moab and Utah’s canyon country, it has not amounted to much so far. In the more than 20 years since the rule’s introduction, there has been no meaningful reduction in NOX emissions at the two largest pollution sources in the state, the Hunter and Huntington power plants. PacifiCorp, the owner of the plants, is not addressing the problem, so we’re asking the state of Utah and the EPA to enforce strong pollution controls.
This is important for Grand County because clear skies and grand vistas are critical to the economic health of the region. Utah’s Division of Air Quality must pursue a strong state implementation plan to address regional haze sources, and the U.S. EPA must make clear that polluters cannot expect to get a pass on plans that do nothing to address the problem.
We are facing multiple challenges in canyon country: ongoing drought, wildfires, rampant tourism, and the pandemic to name a few. Reducing regional haze pollution is something we can act on now that will have long-lasting benefits. To do this, Utah must prioritize enforcing pollution controls to clean up our skies and protect the health of residents and visitors alike.
Sarah Stock, Moab, is a member of the Grand County Commission.