Last year, as wildfires raged in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, visitors to Guadalupe Mountains National Park had to settle for a more limited view when hiking up Guadalupe Peak, Texas’ highest point.
“All summer, there was a haze here,” said Jonena Hearst, the park’s geologist. Even before the fires, she said, visibility had been decreasing slightly over time.
The Environmental Protection Agency wants cleaner air at wilderness areas and national parks across the country, including Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend in Texas. By November, it is supposed to complete a plan that could regulate emissions from dozens of Texas’ industrial plants, with the goal of reducing haze at parks. Texas officials who would execute the plan are not seeking any new controls, and the electric power industry, unusually, is taking the prospect of a new EPA rule in stride.
“Big Bend is our largest national park, but there is very little industry around that area, so these new rules don’t really have much effect on generators,” said Walt Baum, executive vice president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas. Asked about the impact on three old coal plants — Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake — operated by the power-generation company Luminant, Ashley Barrie, a spokeswoman for Luminant, said that "all of the national parks and wilderness areas that the regional haze rule is designed to protect are located far away from these plants. Therefore, this has not been a significant problem in Texas."
Stephanie Kodish, the clean air counsel for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the visibility protection for parks has been decades in the making. The haze controls will apply to a variety of air pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
By May 15, the EPA will decide whether to accept a state haze plan approved in 2009 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The TCEQ says no additional controls on Texas industrial plants are necessary, and that dust storms originating “with little or no human activity” from the nearby desert have a big impact on some days. A Big Bend study from the 1990s estimated contributions from Mexico, Texas and the eastern United States to be about one-third each, the agency says, though it cannot tell what percent is manmade.
Data provided by the National Park Service shows that on poor-visibility days, at least one-third of the haze contribution at Big Bend usually comes from sulfates, which are typically linked to manmade pollution and come from Texas, other states and Mexico.
The EPA concurs: "Most of the haze causing pollution at Big Bend comes from human activity, specifically sulfate from the burning of fossil fuel," said David Bary, a regional spokesman for the agency.
Michael Hiatt, an associate lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice in Colorado, said he knew of no other state declining to add controls under the haze rules. He hopes the EPA will reject TCEQ’s plan, as it has already done for Oklahoma’s plan. (Oklahoma’s attorney general is suing the agency.)
Controls on Texas plants could help clean the air at national parks in other states, Earthjustice says. TCEQ says, however, that nearby states like Arkansas and Missouri have not requested more controls. The agency notes it is already implementing pollution-control strategies for ozone.
Complicating matters is the legal wrangling over the cross-state air pollution rule, a separate EPA regulation that a court stayed in December. That rule regulates some of the same pollutants as the haze rule, though it applies only to power plants. Oral arguments on that rule, which has drawn political opposition in Texas, take place today at a federal court in Washington.
The EPA recently proposed allowing the cross-state regulations to substitute for some haze rules in Texas and other states. Environmental groups say the cross-state rule is too weak to address haze issues; for example, it would allow power plants to trade pollution-reduction obligations with other plants.
Bary said that the haze proposals with regard to the cross-state rule are "based on an all-areas averaging approach, which is consistent with the goals of the Clean Air Act to restore natural conditions of visibility everywhere but not necessarily immediately and at the same pace in each area."
What happens to the haze proposals if the cross-state rule is further delayed or thrown out?
“We cannot speculate on the impact of a final ruling,” said Bary of the EPA.