Protecting wilderness and national parks from haze

“Full Moon at Island Lake” by Scott Copeland. Photo taken at night in the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.


By Bruce Pendery

THE STATE OF WYOMING MET A DEADLINE in January when it submitted its revised plan to the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the air in wilderness areas and national parks.

Wyoming is required by the EPA’s 1999 regional haze rule to create a plan to manage industrial air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, that cause haze and can spoil views over the nation’s most beloved natural landscapes.

The pollutants that cause haze can also be dangerous for people to breathe.

Wyoming’s latest plan, which is now under review at the EPA, marks an important step toward achieving much-needed reductions in industrial air pollution—but it still needs to be improved.

We are asking the EPA, working with the state, to improve and strengthen Wyoming’s plan before it is finalized to ensure that we fulfill the vision of the Clean Air Act and that we do our level best to protect our world-renowned wilderness areas and national parks.

What is Regional Haze?

Regional haze is the pervasive degradation of natural visibility caused by air pollutants emitted from a diverse array of sources over a large geographic area. It is not the obvious plume of pollution that you might see from a power plant, rather it is the general “white out” that sometimes obscures the remarkable 100-mile views we love so much in Wyoming.

Regional haze is caused by major sources of air pollution such as mines and power plants, minor sources such as cars and trucks, and small local operations such as gas stations. Where we live, regional haze is caused by local sources of air pollution, but it is also caused by air pollution blowing in from Idaho, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and even international sources. Forest fires can also cause temporary spikes in haze.

In Wyoming, significant amounts of the haze-producing air pollution come from the state’s five coal-fired power plants and its three major trona mines.

One of the most effective ways for the state to make the needed visibility improvements will be to oblige the power plants and mines to use what’s called the best available retrofit technology to clean up their emissions.

What are Class I Areas?

When it comes to regional haze, there is particular concern for “Class I areas.” Class I areas include most wilderness areas and national parks, and some other special places. They are beloved landscapes and forests that citizens want to see maintained in their natural condition.

All told, there are 156 Class I areas nationwide, seven in Wyoming.

Under the Clean Air Act, Congress declared a national goal for “the prevention of any future, and the remedying of any existing, impairment of visibility in mandatory Class I federal areas which impairment results from manmade air pollution.”

The seven Class I areas in Wyoming are Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, and the North Absaroka, Washakie, Teton, Bridger, and Fitzpatrick wilderness areas. These are spectacular places with magnificent views that are valued by Wyoming residents, as well as people nationwide, and even internationally.

America’s natural heritage includes the ability to see the Grand Tetons clearly when we climb Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest peak, in the Bridger Wilderness Area of the Wind River Range. Residents and visitors should be able to see the Bighorn Mountains 100 miles away on the other side of the Bighorn Basin when they are hiking in the North Absaroka or Washakie Wilderness Areas.

The EPA’s “regional haze rule” seeks to ensure this naturally clean air remains clear.

What is the EPA’s Regional Haze Rule?

Given the far-seeing (pun intended) goal established by the Clean Air Act, and the importance Americans attach to protecting Class I areas, in July 1999 the EPA established regulations for the protection of visibility in Class I areas from the impacts of regional haze. These regulations are known as the “regional haze rule.” These regulations are directed at controlling the numerous sources of pollution that contribute to regional haze and that degrade visibility in Class I areas.

The goal of the EPA’s regional haze rule is to attain natural visibility conditions in Class I areas by 2064.

The rule requires the states to develop an implementation plan that will make “reasonable progress” toward the goal of having natural visibility conditions by 2064.

One component of the required plan is a long-term strategy designed and implemented by the state that provides enforceable emissions limitations, compliance schedules, and other measures needed to get back to more natural visibility conditions.

One of the most important requirements of the regional haze rule is for the installation of upgraded technology on certain old plants and operations that cause or contribute to visibility impairment in Class I areas.

In Wyoming, the Department of Environmental Quality has determined that seven major sources of air pollution need to upgrade their outdated pollution controls, including two major trona mines and their associated plants near Green River, and five of Wyoming’s coal-fired power plants. These technology upgrades are called best available retrofit technology, or BART, a pervasive term you’ll encounter in the regional haze arena.

There are three air pollutants that the regional haze rule primarily regulates: particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide. Requiring upgrades in pollution control technology is the most effective way to control the emission of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, and Wyoming is planning to use an emissions trading program for controlling sulfur dioxide.

It’s Time to Put In Place a Strong Regional Haze Plan in Wyoming

It is our hope that the EPA will now work with the state of Wyoming to strengthen and improve its strategy to reduce regional haze before the plan is finalized. A stronger plan is needed to ensure natural, clear air over Wyoming’s most cherished landscapes; and it would also make the air healthier, in general, for Wyoming residents.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council submitted comments on the two previous versions of Wyoming’s regional haze rule implementation plan asking for these needed improvements. You can read those comments by clicking here and here.

We raised a number of concerns regarding Wyoming’s proposed implementation plan.

These include the failure to put in place adequate additional regulations of the oil and gas industry; the need to focus attention on the Bridger and Fitzpatrick Wilderness Areas because the data show that Wyoming sources of emissions have particularly large impacts on visibility in these areas; a need to significantly reduce the time allotted to reach natural visibility conditions (in some Wyoming Class I areas the draft plan would not lead to natural visibility conditions until 2165, a full century after the 2064 regional haze rule goal); a need to define enforceable emissions limits for certain sources such as the Mountain Cement Company and some of the units at the Dave Johnston power plant; concerns that the sulfur dioxide trading program may not get better results than what could be achieved through technology upgrades; and the need to require Wyoming power plants to use a technology called selective catalytic reduction, which would reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council believes that natural visibility conditions should prevail in Wyoming’s Class I areas by 2064, and that regulatory provisions which ensure this should be put in place promptly.

Our Plans for Achieving Regional Haze Rule Compliance

We plan to actively participate in the EPA’s review and approval of Wyoming’s proposed plan to reduce regional haze. We will ask the EPA to ensure the deficiencies in the previous drafts are corrected.

While the objective of the regional haze rule is to reduce haze in our iconic Class I areas, these pollutants can also harm human health everywhere, so better control of them will have widespread public health benefits.

Achieving those two goals—protection of our National Parks and Wilderness Areas and protecting the public health—will continue to form the basis for the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s activities in this arena.

For More Information

If you want more information on the regional haze rule you can visit the DEQ web pages devoted to the topic here and here, or the EPA web page here.

Contact: Bruce Pendery, Wyoming Outdoor Council staff attorney and program director, bruce@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org; (435) 752-2111

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