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EPA Haze Pollution Deal, First of Its Kind, Awaits Final OK by Federal Judge

The deal puts 18 aging coal plants on a path to being cleaned up or retired; a second haze pact — now in the works — could affect 300 coal facilities

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jul 11, 2011
Grand Canyone haze

WASHINGTON—Back in the winter of 1991, President George H.W. Bush traveled to Arizona to tell operators of a utility to clean up their coal-fired act so visitors could actually distinguish the state's most famous and priceless landmark — the Grand Canyon.

Fast-forward 20 years. Views of the iconic chasm might be a bit less hazy but visibility at 150-plus of the nation's other natural wonders is still limited because of power-plant pollution.

That scenario, however, is expected to begin clearing up soon. It's happening because a handful of conservation organizations have spent decades doggedly prodding, tugging and cajoling the into meeting its Clean Air Act mandate to collaborate with states to reduce the regional haze that clouds views in 156 national parks and wilderness areas.

A filed in the U.S. District Court in Colorado requires EPA to oversee plans to curb thousands of tons of air pollution in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming beginning next year. Once the 30-day comment period ends July 15, a federal judge in Colorado is tasked with issuing final approval.

All told, the settlement puts at least 18 aging coal-fired plants — with more than 16,000 megawatts of generating power — on a path to being cleaned up or retired altogether.

The latest agreement came to fruition after the , the and filed a lawsuit earlier this year after EPA's failure to act.

"It's sort of like if you've been driving a car with a windshield that hasn't been washed in months. You become accustomed to it," John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, told SolveClimate News about what a difference the pact will make to clarity at national parks.

"When you get the windshield cleaned, it opens up a whole new world of views and possibilities."

Haze, Why Worry?

The 18 plants targeted under the agreement collectively release at least 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 150,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 120 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to information compiled by WildEarth Guardians.

Haze happens when sunlight reacts with minuscule pieces of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. When these tiny particles scatter and absorb that light, it creates a vista-blurring veil of white or brown haze that hangs in the air much of the year. The more air pollutants there are, the more absorbing and scattering occurs. Wind can carry the pollutants hundred of miles from where they originated.

"It obscures the grandness of the West," Environmental Defense Fund general counsel Vickie Patton said in an interview, referring to incomparable spots such as Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks. "National parks and wilderness areas are integral to our quality of life."

Under the recent agreement, EPA will be charged with approving state regional haze plans crafted by Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming. However, in Montana's case, EPA officials will be creating a federal regional haze plan because the Big Sky State has told the agency it doesn't have the resources to put together its own plan. Final approval on all four plans is set for varying dates in 2012.

The Bigger Picture

Due to that separate lawsuit and ensuing agreement, Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana are just the first four drops in the proverbial bucket of a nationwide effort to rein in haze-causing pollutants at power plants as well as other large industrial emitters such as pulp mills, refineries and smelters. 

Though the idea of controlling haze started germinating in the Carter administration, EPA first rolled out its haze rules in 1999.

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