But states have been amazingly slow at designing haze-reduction plans that would require power plants and other large emitters to outfit their oldest and dirtiest plants with up-to-date air pollution controls known as "best available retrofit technology." In January 2009, EPA discovered that states were falling short. That triggered a two-year clock requiring EPA to forge ahead with federal regional haze plans if states failed to have a proposal approved by the agency, Patton said.
"It went a lot slower than we would have liked it to go ideally," Carl Daly, director of air programs for EPA Region 8, said in an interview. "It wasn't like states were sitting on their hands. Some states had plans but EPA thought they needed work."
Daly, whose Denver-based region covers six mountain and high plains states, explained that all kinds of complications gummed up the process.
For instance, 31 states and the District of Columbia were counting on what was known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) to cover their haze rules. But that blew up in 2008 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered EPA to revisit the rule crafted under the President George W. Bush administration because it didn’t meet Clean Air Act requirements.
Under the Obama administration's tenure, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has morphed CAIR into what is now called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. EPA for that newest standard last Thursday.
"When CAIR got thrown out, that put the whole process in limbo," Daly said. "Eastern states were relying on that to meet their regional haze goals."
Western states were hampered because they had no precedent to follow in writing a haze plan, he said. Plus, he added, they were trying to balance a long list of more pressing clean air prerogatives.
"It's a matter of competing priorities,” Daly said. "But with litigation, that put a time frame back on it. EPA always has the ability to say that a state plan isn't adequate. That puts the state on notice to get something done."
'Natural' Views by 2064
Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, all in Daly's EPA Region 8, aren't the only states on the hook to slice emissions that cause haze.
EPA officials and environmental organizations are in the midst of ironing out a second far-reaching settlement that will prod somewhere close to three dozen more states to prepare their own regional haze plans, Horning said. The deadline for that agreement is currently being negotiated but details should be announced later this year, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones confirmed in an e-mail.
It's estimated that the second pact could force as many as 300 coal plants to shut down, switch fuels or add pollution-reduction equipment.
The goal is to restore visibility under natural conditions by 2064, Daly said. Haze has substantially limited the visual range at the nation's scenic areas. EPA estimates that air pollution in Eastern parks has decreased the distance visitors can see from 90 miles to somewhere between 15 and 20 miles. The situation is even worse in the West, where visitors can see only 35 to 90 miles, instead of a pre-haze distance of 140 miles.
EPA figures put the cost of acting on a nationwide plan to reduce haze in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion annually. But the payoff, agency numbers show, will come in health-care savings of around $8.4 billion a year.
Some Utilities on Board
While some utility companies are complaining about the price of installing anti-pollution controls and how ratepayers could bear the burden for that cost — especially if an accelerated compliance schedule is required — Xcel Energy has accepted its fate on the haze front.
"From our perspective it's almost a moot point," said Mark Stutz, a spokesman for the Minneapolis-based utility that produces energy in Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. "This mostly affects our operations in Colorado. We support it because we've come up with a plan of action."