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Pollution and national parks — why it's an issue

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL | Posted - Apr 17th, 2019 @ 7:34pm



SALT LAKE CITY — Critics of Utah's proposed regional haze plan say it does not go far enough to cut emissions from a pair of power plants and want state regulators to require upgrades to significantly reduce the pollutant nitrogen oxide.

The plan with its proposed revisions is up for public comment through May 15 and will be reviewed this summer by the Utah Air Quality Board. Comments can be emailed to thomasgunter@utah.gov

After that, the plan and whatever changes are implemented will be submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its approval or rejection.

"We can have breathtaking scenery or we can have breathtaking air," said Dr. Brian Moench, board president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, addressing people at a press conference called Wednesday in advance of a public hearing on the plan.

"Which will it be?"

The Utah Division of Air Quality believes its alternative approach that emphasizes the reduction of sulfur dioxide will be more effective at improving visibility, however.

"On an average day, you can go to Canyonlands National Park, which is the closest park to these power plants, and on that average day you can see for 130 miles," said Jay Baker, an environmental scientist with the state. "Under our proposed plan, that would improve by about a mile, which sounds like almost nothing."

Under the EPA's proposal, endorsed by environmental groups, Baker said the $700 million fix to the plants' four generating units would increase visibility by a half-mile.

While EPA's preferred alternative does reduce nitrogen oxide to a greater degree, Baker said new modeling over a decade shows sulfur dioxide reductions are more efficient at improving visibility.

Cory McNulty, with the National Parks Conservation Association, said the state is wrongly counting emissions reductions when the Carbon Power Plant closed four years ago. The new plan, she said, does not require any new emission reductions.

Combined emissions of both pollutants are 1,576 tons lower under the state's preferred alternative, compared to the EPA method, according to the division.

"The Utah Department of Environmental Quality firmly believes its regional haze plan improves visibility in our national parks while protecting rate payers from significant rate hikes. The Division of Air Quality spent considerable time to use the most accurate modeling tools in reviewing that work, especially in light of the significant costs associated with the federal plan," said Alan Matheson, the agency's executive director.

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The state completed its regional haze plan in 2015, which was rejected by the EPA because of its alternative approach for the reduction of nitrogen oxide.

A year later, Utah sued, taking the case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a stay has been in effect the last two years.

With the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and his rollback of regulations, the EPA in 2018 began discarding the federally instituted plans in favor of giving states more flexibility on the rule — which is a visibility standard and not related to public heath.

The EPA initiated the regional haze rule in 1999 to improve visibility at national parks and other landscapes, boosting the average visual range at Western locations by as much as 120 miles.

In the three-state region of Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — all part of a Western air quality study — sulfur dioxide declined by 64 percent between 2003 and 2017.

The federal agency estimates that overall, between 2007 and 2018, sulfur dioxide emissions dropped by 500,000 tons a year and nitrogen oxide emissions decreased by 300,000 tons per year.

Moench said the continued emissions from the coal plants present a risk to public health, citing studies too that indicate bumps in ozone pollution at parks deter visitation.

Phil Brueck, who worked for the National Park Service in the East and also was deputy superintendent at Arches and Canyonlands national parks, said the state needs to step up its pollution control plan at the power plants.

"As stewards of these beautiful lands, if we have the opportunity to improve any aspect of the environment we live in, why wouldn't we want to do that?"

David Eskelsen, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, said the power plants have been reducing emissions for decades.

"PacifiCorp continues to agree with the state of Utah that the state’s implementation plan is sound science, good public policy, and should be accepted," Eskelsen said. "The company has worked with state environmental regulators diligently for decades on a plan for the most effective way to reduce regional haze and protect the scenic vistas in national parks."

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